On March 17, the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize “all necessary measures” to stop an impending massacre of Libyan civilians. Before long, a narrative had emerged explaining how President Obama had become enmeshed in another major conflict. According to this version of events, a heated debate had occurred between the administration’s realists—Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and his deputy, Denis McDonough—and its interventionists: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; the genocide scholar turned foreign policy adviser Samantha Power; and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Captivated by the apparent gender divide, the press labeled the latter trio the “women who called for war” and “the Women Warriors.” Maureen Dowd even gave them four nicknames: “the Amazon Warriors, the Lady Hawks, the Valkyries, the Durgas.”
This narrative seemed ready-made for the headlines: a behind-the-scenes power struggle in which tough women had prevailed over cautious men and the interventionists had out-fought the realists. The reality, of course, is more complicated. And perhaps the best way to understand the Obama administration’s approach to Libya—one that seeks to be on the right side of history while not actually forging history itself—is to look closely at the role of Susan Rice.
The caricature of Obama’s women warriors owes much to the debate over the Rwandan genocide, particularly as it was chronicled in an influential article by Samantha Power in The Atlantic that condemned the United States for its failure to intervene. One key figure in Power’s story was Susan Rice, a former Rhodes scholar and rising foreign policy star—at the age of 32, she was Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In Power’s telling, Rice blinded herself to the horror unfolding in Rwanda—in one meeting, she reportedly asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect in the November [congressional] elections?” (Rice has said she can’t recall making this remark.) By the time Power interviewed Rice in 2001, however, she seemed haunted by the lessons of Rwanda. She told Power that she would “come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required” rather than allow a mass slaughter to happen again. That quote has defined Rice’s image ever since.
In 2007, Rice and Power were among the first high-profile backers of the Obama campaign—adding to the perception that Rice herself also favored an activist foreign policy. But those who know her say she was attracted to Obama’s candidacy first and foremost by his pragmatism. “It says something about her desire to be on what she believes is the right side analytically,” says Richard Clarke, who worked with Rice on the National Security Council. On the campaign trail, Rice gave her definition of that “right side”: America, she said, should help other countries “not out of a moral or humanitarian concern, as important as that might be, but also out of a recognition that by doing so we’ll enhance our own national security.”
When Obama nominated her to be his U.N. ambassador, a New York Times headline described her as an “Advocate of Strong Action Against Mass Killing.” Previously, Rice had been hawkish on the need for international action to halt the genocide in the Sudan—in 2007, she’d argued for American military assistance to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. At the U.N., however, she has significantly softened her tone: Advocates for Darfur told me they felt abandoned. “Darfur has been a clear failure,” said Mark Hanis, president of the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition. “There have been absolutely no Darfur resolutions during her tenure.”
Indeed, Rice’s tenure at Turtle Bay has been striking for her low-key style. According to those who have observed and worked with her over the past two years, Rice believes that, if U.S. interests are to be advanced through multilateralism, countries need to be free to support the United States without the stigma of being bullied. “If you just go in and dictate what is going to get done, there is not going to be the kind of buy-in and engagement that you need,” said Brooke Anderson, chief of staff at the National Security Council and until recently Rice’s U.N. deputy. Rice seems to embody the president’s approach to foreign policy crises, which one adviser recently described to the New Yorker as “leading from behind.”
Soon after the Libya crisis flared, the Security Council convened an emergency session. Rice was in South Africa but made it back to New York in time to vote for a resolution imposing sanctions on Libya and referring Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court. The British had unsuccessfully pressed for tougher language, and one diplomat suggested to me that they might have prevailed had Rice been around. However, as Qaddafi advanced on the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi and threatened to “cleanse Libya house by house,” the French and British called for a second resolution authorizing a no-fly zone. According to diplomats who participated in the negotiations, the Americans weren’t involved. “It was obvious that they hadn’t made up their minds,” one U.N. official told me.
A number of administration officials I spoke to characterized Rice’s position on Libya as ambivalent at first. She had, as one official put it, “the understanding that there were no easy solutions.” Above all, Rice was intent on avoiding any action that would have the ambiguity of Resolution 1441, the vague measure the Bush administration used to claim international legitimacy for the Iraq invasion.
The turning point, many told me, was the Arab League’s decision to endorse the no-fly zone. Once this broad consensus was in place, according to The New York Times, it was Rice who presented the president with the amendments that would turn the no-fly zone proposal into a resolution with teeth. The final resolution, which enabled the coalition to target tank columns and stop Qaddafi’s ground forces from attacking civilians, passed narrowly on March 17, with a few key allies abstaining, including Germany, India, and Brazil. Rice had sought to ensure that the international community had the ability to wage an effective operation against Qaddafi. But she had also made it clear that the U.S. would not take the lead. A day after the vote, she told CNN, “This is not the United States alone or even predominantly.”
The administration officials I talked to found the narrative of the “lady hawks” laughably far from reality. While Power’s ideas about preventing genocide seem to have percolated up within the administration, she is not a member of the cabinet, and therefore does not hold as much power as Rice or Clinton. And the relationship between Clinton and Rice remains icy. Clinton apparently never got over the many swings Rice took at her during the Democratic primaries. Murmurs that Rice might replace Clinton as Secretary of State in 2012 haven’t helped.
Rice’s role, too, was not as simple as the caricature suggests. Like Obama, she does not appear to see the world through a single ideological prism. Anderson described her as someone “who tries to understand the complexities of any given situation as opposed to being locked in a camp.” Her spokesman, Mark Kornblau, emphatically told me that Rice “would certainly reject the one-dimensional label of humanitarian interventionist.” I asked Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch and an old friend who overlapped with Rice as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he thought she fell on the ideological spectrum. He answered pointedly: “As much as a commitment to human rights or an active American presence in the world, she just likes to get things done.” The Libyan conflict is the biggest test yet of Obama’s contention that U.S. foreign policy can balance both humanism and pragmatism—which makes it Rice’s biggest test, too.
Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, was published in September and was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post.
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