By Michael A. Fletcher and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
As one of President-elect Barack Obama's closest campaign advisers and a fellow opponent of the war in Iraq, Susan E. Rice was regarded as a lock for a senior post in Washington after the election.
But Obama decided instead to put her in New York, in a more visible role -- ambassador to the United Nations -- and thereby send a message to the world's diplomats: The United States will look more kindly, come Jan. 20, on multilateralism and U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Obama said yesterday that he is restoring Rice's position to a Cabinet-level rank, an indication that he views the job as central to his goal of fostering more international cooperation.
"Susan knows the global challenges we face demand global institutions that work," Obama said. "She shares my belief that the U.N. is an indispensable and imperfect forum."
Rice, 44, says her connection to Obama was forged in part by a shared opposition to the war in Iraq, but she is the only top figure in Obama's national security team who opposed the war. She is also the only one with a close relationship with Obama, after working as his senior foreign policy adviser during the campaign.
Despite seven years in the Clinton administration, Rice supported Obama for president rather than Hillary Rodham Clinton. While that irked some supporters of the secretary of state-designate, it linked her with other former Clinton administration officials, including former national security adviser Anthony Lake.
"I was expecting her to be the national security adviser, or deputy secretary of state," said Andrew S. Natsios, a former Bush administration envoy to Sudan who now teaches at Georgetown University. "That neither Susan or Tony are in those roles is instructive. It says that Obama is moving in a different direction than he was during the campaign."
Yet the posting will offer Rice a platform from which to decry long-standing global concerns. For instance, she has voiced a commitment to use American muscle to protect human rights in Africa, particularly in Darfur, where she has raised the prospect of a naval blockade and a bombing campaign to compel the Sudanese government to halt mass violence.
Rice has spoken movingly about how she was shaken by the genocide in Rwanda, where as many as 800,000 were killed. Describing a 1994 visit to the country, Rice told Stanford University's alumni magazine that she saw "hundreds if not thousands of decomposing corpses outside and inside a church. Corpses that had been hacked up. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. It makes you mad. It makes you determined."
Since then, Rice has said she has been haunted by the United States' failure to intervene or to reinforce a beleaguered U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda on the eve of the genocide.
"Rice has learned a lesson from what happened in Rwanda, and, together with the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, she cannot turn a blind eye on anything happening in Africa," said James Kimonyo, Rwanda's ambassador to the United States. "We are very optimistic she is going to be effective" in her new post, he said.
Rice grew up in Northwest Washington and was a basketball player and valedictorian at the National Cathedral School. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where she earned her PhD. She joined the Clinton administration in 1993, rising to senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council. Later, she was appointed assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
U.N. officials welcomed the selection of Rice, an unapologetic proponent of multilateralism, and said the decision to upgrade the post to Cabinet rank showed the Obama administration meant to pay greater attention to the world body.
"She's a woman of intellect, a woman of passion and somebody who would like to get things done," said Ibrahim Gambari, a senior U.N. troubleshooter who first met Rice when he was Nigeria's U.N. ambassador during the military rule of Sani Abacha. In their first meeting, Rice launched a tirade against his government's human rights record. Gambari said he agreed with her assessment and asked her why she was so passionate about Nigeria's problems. "She said she believed she was conceived in Nigeria," he said.
Rice, who is known for being blunt in meetings, has sometimes been seen as a polarizing figure by other African governments. Congo's U.N. ambassador, Atoki Ileka, said that the United States, racked by guilt over its failure to stop genocide in 1994, provided support to Rwanda on the eve of its 1998 invasion of Congo. "A sentiment of guilt has been the driving force for U.S. policy in that region of the world," Ileka said.
But he added that he has developed enormous respect for Rice in subsequent years and that he believes that Obama, who supported legislation in the Senate to increase financial aid to Congo, will be more even-handed.
Lynch reported from the United Nations. Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.