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.