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Susan Rice on Things Worth Fighting For

In her memoir Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, former National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice reveals pivotal moments from her career on the front lines of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy. In this episode of Brennan Center Live, Rice talks with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell about the current state of foreign affairs and the challenges facing American leadership.

  • Susan Rice
  • Andrea Mitchell
June 3, 2020
Susan Rice and Andrea Mitchell

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Susan Rice: It's vitally important that we return to normal. Either we want to be a global leader who is able to advance and defend our interests and protect our security … Or we're going to become the laughingstock, and in effect indistinguishable from a banana republic.

Michael Waldman: That’s Susan Rice. She was President Barack Obama’s national security advisor and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. She recounts the pivotal moments in her career and laments the disintegration of political norms during the Trump era in her new book, Tough Love

Susan Rice: If we don't get serious and recognize how dangerous this is, and how detrimental it is to each of us individually as well as our country on the global stage, then it can become normal, and it can become irretrievable.

Michael Waldman: This is Brennan Center LIVE, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. I’m Michael Waldman. This program was recorded in October 2019. 

Susan Rice spoke with Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent, and host of her own show on MSNBC.


Susan Rice: It's called Tough Love because that's how I was raised by my parents. That's how I've tried to raise my kids. It's also how I've tried to lead my teams in government and public service, as some of them here can attest. And it's also frankly how I have related to our country.

And tough love means that you love fiercely, but not uncritically. As leaders, as parents, as human beings, we don't do each other any service by whitewashing things and sugarcoating stuff. We get better when we have people who care enough about us to tell us the truth.

We don't live in a perfect country, but we live in a phenomenally impressive country that I love from the bottom of my heart. And as I've tried to serve and lead, and represent us on the global stage, I do it also without varnish. There are times when our stuff is out of kilter, and we need to acknowledge it and learn from our mistakes and build upon our history.

 Andrea Mitchell: How important is it for a president of the United States to have advisors who will tell him or her when they are going off course?

Susan Rice: It's absolutely essential, and if we don't have that, we're in deep trouble. And I think frankly, particularly when I served President Obama, there were many mornings when I walked in the Oval Office to give the briefing in the Presidential Daily Briefing, the PDB, and what I had to say he didn't want to hear because it was either unpleasant, or complicated, or problematic. But he knew and he expected me to give it to him unvarnished.

Andrea Mitchell: Let me ask you about some of your experiences. Give us an example of when you had to tell the president of the United States — you write about it in the book … Let's talk about Syria, for instance.

I recall that Labor Day weekend on the red line in Syria. The red line has been crossed: Chemical weapons have been used. And we all assumed that on that weekend, something was going to happen.

Susan Rice: So I describe at some length in the book that we had approved the final targets, he had blessed them, and we were only worried about, frankly, getting United Nations personnel out of harm's way.

And so all of us thought that we were very close to action. So he wanted to seek congressional support, approval, for this military action in Syria. It could escalate into a tit for tat. It could evolve into something that was far more extended.

He was also thinking, as he often did, three or four moves down the field. And he thought that if, in the case of Syria, it's necessary and important to invest Congress in a decision on the use of force, then it will also be necessary to invest Congress in a decision to use force, if necessary, in Iran, should the nuclear situation escalate and diplomacy fail. So he's got a whole chessboard going on with this.

And he calls us all into the Oval Office and he outlines his thinking. And he goes around the room as he typically does, and asks each of us what they think. And everybody expressed agreement with the president. And I was the last one he called on, and he came to me and I said, "Mr. President, I think you got to strike. You cannot wait for Congress. And you can't wait for Congress because we have made very explicit what our intentions are." And I actually quoted Vice President Biden who likes to say, “Big countries don't bluff.”

And the most passionate aspect of my argument was, I don't think Congress is going to give you that authority. And I was the only one who said that.

The next morning, he convened all the principals — many of whom he'd talked to individually overnight — and had the same discussion, polled them all. And they all basically endorsed his view. And I again explained in shorter hand why I thought we weren't going to get congressional support.

I was right on the politics, and I think I was wrong on the policy. And the reason I say I think I was wrong on the policy was because we actually ended up — through diplomacy, and that agreement that the president got out of the Russians — to squeeze the Syrians to actually give up the vast bulk of their chemical weapons capacity.

Andrea Mitchell: I want to ask you about Benghazi, which was clearly the most painful experience for you, for the country. Your friend Chris Stevens, the ambassador, was killed, and three other Americans. And frankly, as you describe it and as many of us covering it at the time felt, that you were hung out to dry.

By going out on Sunday morning television the weekend after that horrific attack, and working off of talking points that were scripted by the intelligence community — not able to reveal, as it has since been revealed, that the outpost involved was actually not a State Department facility.

Susan Rice: One of them.

Andrea Mitchell: One of them — one was, one was not. And you write very movingly about your mother.

Susan Rice: Whom you knew.

Andrea Mitchell: Whom I knew, who was a great lady. And she warned you against going out. What did she say to you?

Susan Rice: The moral of the story is: Listen to your mother. That's the shorthand version. The longer version of the story is it's Friday night before the Sunday that I'm meant to go on the shows. I had just come from Andrews Air Force Base, where I and other members of the cabinet — the president and the vice president — were greeting the families who had lost their loved ones. And we received the caskets that had come home. It was horribly painful for us, not to mention excruciating for the families.

And my mom, three months earlier, after her fifth — I've lost count, but I think her fifth — cancer surgery, had had a stroke. And she was still recovering from this stroke, so I wanted to stop by on my way home and check on her, see how she was doing, and just spend a little time.

And she, says, "What are you doing for the weekend?" And I said, "Well I'm taking the kids to Ohio State on Saturday for a football game against Berkeley, and then on Sunday I'm going on all five of the Sunday shows to talk about what's happened this week."

And my mother's gut on this from the very beginning was, "I smell a rat. You should not do this." I'm like, "Mom, what are you talking about? She says, "I just know this is not a good idea. You really shouldn't do it." And I was like, "Mom, come on. Just don't be ridiculous, it'll be fine." And of course it wasn't.

 And what I think happened was that my mother understood intuitively when you are the first person out in a crisis that's going to be highly politicized, something is going to be wrong about the information you have. And they're going to shoot not just the message, but the messenger.

I learned that the hard way because it never occurred to me, frankly, to put myself before the team. Now it would.

Andrea Mitchell: But the furor among Republicans, I mean, it was fierce. And I have to ask you about your withdrawing your nomination, or the possibility that you would be the next secretary of state.

Susan Rice: Well, it was fierce. Sunday show appearances were mid-September. President gets reelected in early November. And I had endured in the interim just like a nonstop pummeling. But I had naively thought that once the election was over, that things would move on and it would be okay.

And then Lindsay Graham and John McCain decided that the party was just starting. And they then made it their very baldly stated mission to make sure that I was not nominated to be secretary of state.

By early to mid-December, I made a decision, in consultation with my family and a couple of folks on my team, that it wasn't worth it. And so I made a decision that was difficult, but I think was right — I still think was right.

Andrea Mitchell: And you ended up being national security advisor, and probably having a much more challenging, in many ways, and close relationship with the effecting of foreign policy.

Susan Rice: I loved being national security advisor. I loved being UN ambassador too. They're both great, great jobs. And I think being President Obama's national security advisor — somebody who was so serious and thoughtful and committed to what we were doing, and also just a lot of fun to be with — I wouldn't trade that.

And so I feel like I have nothing but blessings. And I'd do that again in a heartbeat.

Andrea Mitchell: I want to ask you about … You write about this so, so movingly, your family life and raising children in the midst of this environment with the pressures, and dealing with aging parents and your parents' illnesses at the same time. How do you do all of that?

Susan Rice: I couldn’t have done it without Ian. When I was in New York for four and a half years, Ian was for, half that time, the executive producer of the Sunday show on ABC, This Week. He was getting the kids up every morning, driving them to school, giving them breakfast, giving them dinner, making sure they got their homework done, taking them to sports, while I'm up here at the UN, coming home on the weekends when I could.

And then for a large portion of that time, my father, who had had a stroke on Christmas day of 2009, was living in our house. So he's doing all of that, and supporting me emotionally and otherwise.

But the other side of the coin is, I was committed to the family and the kids, and I — again, I got lots of witnesses here — if I had to be at a parent teacher conference, or at a doctor's appointment, or a back-to-school night, or at a doctor's appointment for my parents, or at their hospital bedside, that's where I'd be.

If you're going to have teams that work, everybody on that team, from the most senior to most junior, has to know that they're cared for, and cared for by the other people on that team. So if you have to step out to deal with a crisis in your life, you need to know that that team is going to close in behind you and fill the gap, and that you can be replaced in your work. Even as national security advisor, certainly as UN ambassador. Somebody can step into the chair, or somebody can run the meeting — fortunately, if you've picked good deputies.

But nobody can replace you at your parents' bedside when they're dying. And so that's always got to be first. And thankfully, President Obama understood that, and that was the tone he set at the top.  If you don't feel like you're valued as a human being and your team has your back, the team's not going to be strong. It's not going to cohere. It's not going to hang together when stuff gets really tough.

Andrea Mitchell: What was the most difficult decision you made during your tenure with the Obama administration?

Susan Rice: My job — particularly as national security advisor, but also as UN ambassador — as a member of the cabinet-level Principals Committee was not actually, at the end of the day, to make the decisions. It was to recommend what the president should do about X, Y or Z.

In the Obama administration, in the Bush administrations before it, in the Clinton administration — which I served — when things are working normally, the principals convene, they look at the options, they assess the implications, and they each make recommendations. Sometimes we're in agreement; sometimes we're in disagreement.

The national security advisor's job is to faithfully represent to the president what his top advisors recommend. And then at the end of that memo to make my own recommendation as to what the president should do. So that's my job, is to recommend rather than to decide.

The most wrenching, unsatisfactory, painful, difficult issue we dealt with was Syria — and not so much the red line issue of chemical weapons, which we described already, but the larger question of the extent to which the United States ought to get involved in the Syrian civil war for humanitarian purposes.

This is, again, separate from getting involved to deal with ISIS, which we all agreed we had the do. And on this issue, the principals were deeply divided. And as I expand on in the book, there were only bad options and worse options. And that I think was the single hardest issue that, from my vantage point, we had to wrestle with.

Andrea Mitchell: And just to explain, in the administrations I've covered — going back to Jimmy Carter — the national security advisor's role is to assess the options and consult with the other members of the National Security Cabinet, and then synthesize and bring recommendations to the president. What about the process where on the fourth national security advisor, there is no process?

Susan Rice: It's really important, folks, that we remember what normal is, because if we have any hope of getting back to that, we can't lose sight.

Normal is that you don't make foreign policy decisions or pronouncements by tweet. Normal is that you don't hang up the phone with a foreign leader, and without any policy process or consultation. Normal is that you don't launch planes to strike Iran after a half-assed policy process, and then wake up and decide 10 minutes out that you're turning them around. Normal is that you don't invite your adversaries on the South Lawn of the White House, in broad daylight, to intervene in your elections.

So we've lost all sense of normal. And what Trump is doing, frankly, brilliantly, is not just violating every norm, but violating every norm so transparently that he's in effect trying to rewrite the norms. And we can't let that happen.

And that's not a partisan statement. That is just a statement of how responsible government has to work. On the most consequential issues, the president would sit down with his cabinet-level advisors and talk it all through, and then go home and think about it, and make a reasoned decision.

And then we'd have a process to announce it. There would be what we used to call a rollout. There's no rollout any more.

Andrea Mitchell: Well, to those who are not involved in foreign policy decision making, how important is it to return to the norms where ambassadors are not undermined and where there isn't a shadow foreign policy?

Susan Rice: It's vitally important that we return to normal. Either we want to be a global leader who is able to advance and defend our interests and protect our security, with allies and partners who trust us and join us in dealing with the most complicated challenges, whether it's Russian aggression, or an Ebola epidemic, or Paris climate negotiations, or dealing with Iran or North Korea.

Or we're going to become the laughingstock, and in effect indistinguishable from a banana republic. The way we have decisions made unilaterally in the personal interests of one individual, without record, without process, without truth — it's a stark choice, and it's ours actually to make.

But if we don't get serious and recognize how dangerous this is, and how detrimental it is to each of us individually as well as our country on the global stage, then it can become normal, and it can become irretrievable.

Andrea Mitchell: Why didn't President Obama and his administration more publicly warn Russia against interfering in our elections?

Susan Rice: We did. President Obama personally and directly, in early September in China at the G20, pulled Putin aside, and — I don't think it's too stark to say — threatened him. Told him we knew what he was doing, we were watching for evidence that they did more than they had already done.

Our biggest concerns were twofold. One, that they would actually succeed in getting into some of the electoral systems in the states and corrupting the voter rolls or corrupting the actual tally. So that was the overriding concern.

The other was that they might take false … take stolen information and falsify it, make stolen emails look like they were saying something that they weren't actually saying, distorting them — like the equivalent of a deepfake, but with email. And those were the things we were looking for. By the time we discovered this, the horse had left the barn in terms of the theft of the emails.

The president reiterated that warning very directly in early October on the same day that he publicly put out from the White House — via the DNI and the secretary of homeland security — that the intelligence community had concluded at the highest levels of the Russian government that they were trying to interfere in our elections.

And that very stark warning that we took some time to get to —because we were trying to get the intelligence community to agree on the validity of the information at high confidence level — came on the same day as the Access Hollywood tape, which was dropped not even two hours later. And the same day that Wikileaks or whatever put out the stolen Podesta emails.

So that very important and stark warning that we had carefully crafted and come to was probably the third story in the news that next day.

Andrea Mitchell: What are your thoughts on Greta Thunberg?

Susan Rice: The young people … She's phenomenal. She's so brave. She's so passionate. She's so smart. As a parent, as a grown-up, my heart bursts in the same way it does for the Parkland kids. These are the leaders, the people who are fearless, who are talking truth to power.

Thank God for Greta. Thank God for Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, and all these brave young people. They're not giving up.


Michael Waldman: Thank you for listening to this episode of Brennan Center LIVE with Susan Rice and Andrea Mitchell. 

Please look out for Brennan Center events, follow us on social media, and sign up for my weekly newsletter, The Briefing, at BRENNANCENTER DOT ORG. The Brennan Center LIVE podcast is available on our website and wherever you get your podcasts.

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