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.”