Last weekend, when the United Nations Security Council finally mustered the will to put its weight behind a plan to halt the horror show that has been unfolding in Syria for the past thirteen months, Susan Rice greeted the development without a trace of triumphalism—or even much optimism. All the Security Council had done, after all, was take a baby step, voting to dispatch 30 unarmed observers to begin monitoring the cease-fire negotiated by envoy Kofi Annan and agreed to by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad a few days earlier. And the cease-fire itself, universally described as “tenuous” or “fragile,” was in fact already starting to unravel. Noting that Syrian forces had that very morning “resumed their brutal shelling of Homs and opened fire on mourners in Aleppo,” America’s ambassador to the U.N. declared, at once flatly and grimly, “We are under no illusions.”
A good thing, that, because if they had been, those illusions would have been cruelly shattered by what came next: not a diminution of the violence but its rapid escalation, both from the air and on the ground, pushing the death toll since the anti-Assad uprising began to more than 10,000. By the end of last week, with international pressure mounting for a tougher line against Syria, Hillary Clinton was calling on the Security Council to get back to work—this time on a resolution authorizing financial sanctions and an arms embargo. Rice, meanwhile, took to Twitter to denounce the Damascus despot in starkly personal terms: “Syrian regime lied to the world, lied to its people & the biggest fabricator is Asad [sic] himself.”
For President Obama, the worsening crisis in Syria is one of two crushing foreign-policy migraines originating in the Middle East; the other, of course, revolves around Iran and its nuclear program. Both are of vast geopolitical significance. Both, in an election year, could also have domestic political implications. And both are issues where Rice is worthy of particular attention, and not just because she has played a central role on each. More than any other of Obama’s advisers, Rice understands, shares, and reflects her boss’s worldview: When it comes to foreign policy, their mind meld is nearly total.
Not long ago, I met Rice in Washington in her office at the State Department. Though she obviously works mainly in Turtle Bay, Rice visits Foggy Bottom almost every week, as well as attending meetings of the National Security Council—all of which is telling in itself. Under George W. Bush, the U.N. ambassador’s position was stripped of the Cabinet rank it had under Bill Clinton; Obama’s restoration of that status was a clear sign and symbol of his intent to pursue a more U.N.-friendly, multilateral foreign policy than his predecessor had. And so was his choice of Rice, who had been one of his principal foreign-policy advisers and most visible surrogates during his presidential campaign, to fill the chair.
Her approach to the job has been low-key but by no means low-profile. In 2010, she was instrumental to the passage of comprehensive sanctions against Iran. She was central to assembling the international coalition in favor of military intervention in Libya the following spring, and to the passage of the U.N. resolution authorizing it. And a few months later, she played a key role in preventing the threatened vote on Palestinian statehood at the U.N. General Assembly. (Few of Obama’s foreign-policy hands are lauded loudly, or lauded at all, by hard-line pro-Israel American Jewish groups—except for Rice.) And now she is front and center once again on the question of how to halt the carnage in Syria.
Ideas about how to accomplish that are being voiced more volubly and urgently by the day. French president Nicolas Sarkozy calls for the creation of “humanitarian corridors so an opposition can exist”; still others for the U.S. to help arm the Free Syrian Army; others still for the imposition of no-fly zones. In support of these proposals, any number of incendiary historical analogies are invoked: We are witnessing another Bosnia, another Rwanda—or, more recently, what might have taken place in Benghazi had their been no intervention in Libya.
Rice begs to differ on every point. By phone on the morning after Clinton called for harsher measures to be considered against Syria—measures that, according to Rice and contrary to some reporting, including in the Times, did not include the use of force—she argued that many of the proposals being advanced by critics would be far less benign and much more dangerous than they sound. “Humanitarian corridors and safe zones by necessity require boots on the ground,” she said. “When you take these proposals and apply them practically, they would involve a lot more than some of these folks admit they’re saying up front.”
As for the analogy with Libya, Rice rattled off countless ways in which the situation in Syria is dramatically different: the lack of unity among Arab countries regarding any sort of intervention; the U.N. resistance by Russia and China even to sanctions, let alone the use of force; the fact that the Syrian opposition controls no major swath of territory in the country to “push out” from; the fact that Iran is supplying arms to Assad, whereas Libya had no such patron; the presence of extensive Syrian air defenses; the sectarian fissures within the country; and, most critically, the fact that the full-blown civil war could easily turn into a regionwide proxy war. “Our view has been not that there is a different moral imperative” in Syria than there was in Libya, Rice said; “but there is a different set of geopolitical and strategic concerns that have to be weighed. Our view has been that if this can possibly be resolved without further militarizing the country and the region, that would be preferable.”
Whether or not that will prove possible remains to be seen, as does what Plan B will be for the U.S. if it does not. But Rice’s arguments, which by all accounts echo Obama’s on Syria, are revealing in any case. After the Libyan operation, its success was portrayed in some quarters as a victory for Rice, Clinton, and NSC adviser Samantha Power and for a brand of idealistic, liberal-hawkish interventionism over the forces of gimlet-eyed realism (represented by Pentagon chief Bob Gates and national-security adviser Tom Donilon) in the administration. This “women warriors” narrative was always grossly oversimplified in many ways. But what the Syrian crisis has shown thus far is that it was also fundamentally flawed: that the president and his people are cautious, pragmatic practitioners of foreign policy, more akin to Bush 41 and his crowd than to Clinton or (perish the thought) Bush 43 and theirs; that Realpolitik, in other words, is alive and well on Team Obama.
That same approach is what has governed its tactics and strategy when it comes to to the other, even more consequential, Middle East danger zone—Iran. And here, after many months of suffering the slings and arrows of incessant criticism from the right, there are signs that the White House might, just might, be moving toward averting both a nuclear Iran and a military strike against it. After the opening round of negotiations in Istanbul on April 14, Iran agreed to another round of talks in a few weeks’ time. More important, the outlines of a deal became clear: Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level (for weapons-making purposes), halt work on a controversial underground facility, and export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium—and the U.S. and the rest of the world would then allow it to pursue a civilian nuclear program.
Every possible caveat is necessary here, but no less a sage observer than the Washington Post’s David Ignatius sees reasons to be (guardedly) cheerful. “Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous,” he writes. “It’s a well-prepared negotiation, in other words, and it seems likely to succeed if each side keeps to the script and doesn’t muff its lines.”
Rice is too sober and circumspect to allow herself to express that degree of optimism. “It’s clear that the pressure the regime is under due to the sanctions is completely unprecedented,” she told me when we met in Washington. “They are saying some different things. They’re saying that having a nuclear weapon is a sin. They’re saying that they’re willing to negotiate without preconditions … But I think it’s going to be months, frankly, after the sanctions reached their maximum impact this summer before we’re able to judge whether the heightening pressure is in fact causing them not just to say different things but to do different things.”
Whatever ultimately transpires with Iran and Syria, Rice’s U.N. tenure is already seen in the administration—and particularly by the guy behind the big desk in the Oval Office—as having been a success. So much so, in fact, that, along with Donilon and John Kerry, she is considered the likeliest successor to Clinton should Obama win reelection. In almost every respect, the two women could hardly be more different. But in the past three years Rice has endured at least one distinctly Clintonesque experience: being subject to attacks from Republicans so baseless and incoherent they would have made a lesser woman’s head explode. It’s hard to imagine that background won’t come in handy in a second Obama term.