Front Lines

Susan Rice’s Second Act: A Remarkable Rebound From Benghazi

The national security adviser is again testing out talking points, this time on Syria. It’s an astounding turnabout, says Eleanor Clift.

In what sounded like a preview of what President Obama will tell the country Tuesday evening from the Oval Office, National Security Adviser Susan Rice laid out in the most unflinching terms the arguments, both substantive and emotional, for why the U.S. must act in Syria, her emphasis underscored in the written version of her speech distributed by the White House. Speaking at the New America Foundation on Monday, she used just about every card available to the administration; her own reaction as a parent to the suffering of the children gassed to death in Syria and the anguish of their parents; the specter of an emboldened Iran and North Korea if the U.S. fails to act; and finally, an appeal to our better angels, to an America that is, as Rice put it, “the one indispensable leader in the world.”

She urged every member of Congress to watch the videos that document what happened on Aug. 21, when civilians were jolted awake choking on poison. “Some never woke up,” she said. “As a parent, I cannot look at those pictures—those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching—and not think of my own two kids. I can only imagine the agony of those parents in Damascus.”

In more graphic detail than any other official has presented in public, Rice explained that sarin gas, the nerve agent allegedly used by the Assad regime, is odorless and colorless, giving victims no warning as it targets the body’s central nervous system, “making every breath a struggle and causing foaming at the nose and mouth, intense nausea, and uncontrollable convulsions.” What makes chemical weapons different, she said, is how they can kill on an unimaginable scope and scale, as gas plumes shift and spread without warning, potentially sending masses of people to their death. “Opening the door to their use anywhere threatens the United States and our personnel everywhere,” Rice said.

For an administration that had been more focused on violations of international norms, Rice took the argument to an emotional level. Emotions move public opinion in a way that legalistic arguments cannot, and the administration is running out of time to counter the drum beat of lawmakers announcing their opposition, and the unrelenting negative polls. Pew Research/USA Today found overall opposition to a military strike surged 15 points since last week, from 48 percent to 63 percent, with Republicans reaching 70 percent disapproval, up 30 points in a week. Americans, preoccupied with their own problems, may feel helpless in the face of such suffering and reflexively turn away. They may believe that whatever is happening in the Middle East is a morass that the limited, targeted military action the administration wants might only make matters worse.

The administration’s march toward an apparent train wreck on Capitol Hill was interrupted Monday when the Russians, playing off a seemingly offhand comment by Secretary of State John Kerry, offered a proposal that the international community oversee Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Suddenly the diplomatic track kicked into high gear, and Washington took a deep breath even as officials questioned the seriousness of the Russian proposal.

For Rice, her standing in the administration, always strong in the president’s eyes, is nonetheless a remarkable turnabout from a year ago, when she became the target for Republican attacks on Benghazi and the administration’s failure to come to the rescue of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans under fire in what the administration grudgingly conceded was a terrorist attack. The controversy cost Rice a likely nomination to become secretary of State, but Obama got the last word by bringing her into the White House in July. Introducing Rice on Monday at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter noted that Rice is the first woman to serve as national security adviser in a Democratic administration.

Just as she held the line in her support for Obama during those many months when she was the face of Benghazi—unfairly, as it turned out she really was a bit player giving talking points provided by others—Rice is once again on the front lines testing out talking points. This time they’re her own, and they reflect views honed through years of watching and monitoring conflicts in war zones. During the Clinton administration she was in the State Department and saw the horrors of Rwanda, and then as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations she tried to no avail for many months to win Security Council backing for a resolution to condemn Bashar al-Assad’s behavior in Syria. Obama would like to have U.N. backing, she said, “But let’s be realistic—it’s just not going to happen.”

After her speech Monday, Rice was scheduled to brief members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House. Their support is critical if Obama is to prevail, and like many Americans, they will want assurances that whatever military action is planned, it will not be like Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Kosovo, which Rice described as an open-ended air campaign. She will likely emphasize, as she did in her speech, that a president must have all the tools of power—diplomatic, economic and military—an argument that carries particular weight with the CBC and its 43 members, who do not want to see a historic presidency cut short and disabled over Syria.

If Obama can’t respond to what he sees as an unconscionable act by Syria, how can he maneuver on the world stage when confronted with greater threats? “Failing to respond to the use of chemical weapons risks opening the door to other weapons of mass destruction and emboldening the madmen who would use them,” Rice declared. “We cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction, or a nuclear North Korea, or an aspiring nuclear Iran, to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our long-standing warnings…Failing to respond to this brazen attack could indicate the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our nation secure.”

The administration is still far short of what the Bush administration did in predicting a mushroom cloud if Congress didn’t give its approval to invade Iraq, but if Rice is any indication, it is pressing the fear button about what message Iran and North Korea would take from Obama’s inability to act. “Make no mistake, the decision our nation makes in the coming days is being watched in capitals around the world, especially in Tehran and Pyongyang,” she said. Noting that House and Senate leaders have declared their full support, and foreign policy experts from both parties have given their blessing, Rice said, “There aren’t many nonpartisan issues left in Washington. This is one, or at least it should be.” However the vote turns out—or whether there is a vote at all—she’s right about that. Administration advocates were already claiming credit, saying Obama’s credible threat of force had brought the Russians to the negotiating table, and now more than ever Congress needs to back him up.