Female Holbrooke?

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s Blunt Style Unusual, But Effective on Libya

America’s envoy to the U.N. has an unusually blunt style, but it worked well in her efforts to topple the Libyan regime. By Eleanor Clift.

Seth Wenig / AP Photo

Assertive and direct are attributes we don’t normally associate with diplomats, which is why some of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s former colleagues from the Clinton administration call her “the female Holbrooke.” It’s mostly meant as a compliment.

The late Richard Holbrooke was one of the most effective diplomats of his generation, forging the peace accord that ended the bloody civil war in Bosnia and tirelessly promoting reconciliation in Afghanistan in the months before he died suddenly in 2010. He also could be maddening to work with, dominating any situation and breaking a lot of crockery in the process.

Rice, too, gets faulted for sometimes overstepping the role that others imagine for her, and not showing proper deference to the political chain of command, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But her performance navigating the United Nations to assemble a coalition to oust Muammar Gaddafi from Libya showed directness can be an asset in diplomacy, an attribute for which she makes no apologies.

“I am a direct person,” Rice says in an interview with The Daily Beast. “With me, what you see is what you get. I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to scam you, if I say we’ll do something, we’ll do it.”

Rice was one of the first insiders from Bill and Hillary Clinton’s world to make the switch to then-candidate Barack Obama, speaking out for him publicly beginning in 2007 and leaving bruised feelings among those she had worked with for eight years in the Clinton administration, first on the National Security Council, then at the State Department as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

With some campaign types in high places resentful of her, Rice has had to earn her chops as Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Now, three years into her tenure, she’s done it so well that she is talked about as a possible successor to Hillary Clinton should Obama win a second term.

When asked during the course of a nearly hour-long interview this month about the possible ascension to the secretary of state’s job, Rice replies courteously but crisply. “I will roll my eyes and smile and say I don’t know if there’s a short list, and if there is, there’s only one person who knows about it, or has it.”

That one person is the president, whose relationship with Rice has been likened to that of George W. Bush with Condoleezza Rice in the sense that both men came to rely on a smart woman who helped them navigate the minefields of a contentious campaign, forging bonds that get rewarded.

There still are lingering tensions, but Clinton has given Rice a great deal of leeway in doing her job, just as Obama has granted Clinton the autonomy that her experience and rock star status warrant.

Rice says she works “very collegially” with the State Department. She has an office in the building, and tries to meet weekly with Clinton, though their schedules make that difficult to accomplish. They more can often be found around a virtual table, like the one that was assembled early last year to forge the policy and the coalition that ultimately resulted in the downfall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

Rice calls it “the high point of our work here,” and she gets credit for pressing the U.N. Security Council to support a resolution that went beyond the much discussed no-fly zone to a broader mandate to protect civilians, and to include meaningful Arab participation.

Recounting those tense days, Rice recalls being plugged in by video to meetings at the White House, “and running across the street to do an equally intense set of negotiations which were evolving in parallel in real time. Usually we have policy decisions and I go to the council and try to get it done. These were evolving on two simultaneous tracks.”

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The idea of imposing a no-fly zone had gained traction in the media, and among the European allies, but Obama was opposed, believing a no-fly zone alone would be one of the worst possible outcomes.

“We would have been half pregnant,” Rice explains. “It would have given the illusion of action and the reality of inaction… Because you’re flying around up there watching what’s happening on the ground and deterring planes from taking off or striking planes that might take off. But the action wasn’t in the air; it was very much in terms of convoys and columns moving against civilians on the ground in places like Benghazi.”

On a Thursday morning in mid-March last year, Rice went before the Security Council and made a blunt and impassioned statement about U.S.’s determination that the council not simply embrace what she called “a naked no-fly zone.” Instead, she argued for the council to adopt clear language that would allow for military action.

“I described quite precisely air strikes against convoys, strikes against command and control facilities … and I said to the council, this is ultimately your decision, we’re not going to do it if you all don’t authorize it, so it’s on you if we’re watching the next mass atrocity,” she recalls now.

Rice’s ultimatum confounded the Security Council, with some U.S. allies suspecting she was “trying to up the ante so far that we blew this thing up…they soon came to see we were dead serious, but feared we were overreaching,” she recalls.

Rice’s directness paid off, and in Benghazi, the Libyan city most threatened by Gaddafi, Rice discovered—on a visit there in November—that she is something of a folk hero. It was a complete coincidence, she says, but on the day of the Security Council vote, she was wearing a green jacket, with a green shirt underneath, and green happens to be Gaddafi’s color.

“I not only raised my hand emphatically, but looked around to make sure others had kept their word. I had no idea I had done any of this, I was just in there doing my job,” but that was the image that won the hearts of the Libyan people, she says.

There would be more nail-biting moments ahead, as it took longer for the rebels to dislodge Gaddafi than the cable-news pundits had patience for, and critics assailed Obama’s burden-sharing with NATO allies as “leading from behind.” The phrase infuriates Rice, who calls it “not only an oxymoron, but factually inaccurate.”

With her answer to the GOP’s charge that Obama has diminished U.S. primacy in the world, she chooses her words carefully. “The U.S. is the biggest instrument in the orchestra, and we can play various ways—we can play solo when our interests dictate, we can play sotto voce, or we can be the big bass while others play…and the president has the skill and wisdom to know which role to play.”

As if to underscore her words, there is no indication that the coalition that came together to force action in Libya will coalesce to address the ongoing slaughter of civilians in Syria. “We’re gravely concerned,” Rice says, falling back on diplomatic speech.

With the Security Council unlikely to act, Rice has turned to social media tools, tweeting almost daily and using Facebook to broaden communication and reach the activist community—“the average citizens who are facing down the guns of Assad,” she says.

When the Russians and Chinese vetoed a resolution last fall condemning the Syrian regime, Syrians posted video and photographs of the burning of Russian and Chinese flags, and signs of support for the U.S. position.

“Those who are protesting for their rights in Syria or Libya or Egypt, or elsewhere are actually watching to a substantial extent…what we do here at the U.N., and what the U.S. in particular is doing. It’s a very different form of engagement and diplomacy than we’ve ever had,” says Rice, who is especially fond of the 140-character “haiku” of Twitter.

While it suits her no-nonsense, all-business style, she confesses to “a temptation that I sometimes have to resist” which is to say exactly what’s on her mind, the quality that got her where she is, and that puts her at age 47 in the vanguard of a new generation of diplomats.