ASG SVP Ben Chang comments on National Security Advisor Susan Rice in POLITICO
Susan Rice’s walk on the mild side
In late December, National Security Adviser Susan Rice pushed her aides to deliver a particular memo to President Barack Obama on an accelerated schedule — until she realized her timetable meant they’d have to work straight through the night before Christmas.
“If this is going to f— up everyone’s Christmas Eve, we’ll regroup on the 26th,” she said at a small, private meeting, according to a director on the National Security Staff.
Delivered with Rice’s typically colorful flair, the gesture was appreciated within the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
In another nod to her aides, Rice has quietly put in motion a proposal to change the name of the National Security Staff back to the National Security Council staff, a small tweak in nomenclature that nonetheless holds outsize importance to the folks who work for her and that requires an executive action by the president. If all goes well, she’ll deliver on that in January.
Six months into her tenure, Rice is showing that she retains more from her days as a point guard at Washington’s elite National Cathedral School than just the sharp elbows she’s known for throwing at colleagues, diplomats and even senators. National Security Staff members describe seeing in Rice another trait that’s common to floor generals in basketball: She knows how to lead a team.
More important for Rice, the outreach to her own staff appears to be part of a larger campaign that has all the hallmarks of a concerted effort to rehabilitate her reputation. She spent Thanksgiving meeting with American troops in Afghanistan — and, a little more than a year after a disastrous round of post-Benghazi Sunday talk show interviews, she recently cooperated with a “60 Minutes” profile that focused in part on her family life.
There’s a lot at stake, not just for Rice but for Obama. He has entrusted her with a responsibility — coordinating the high-powered chieftains of the nation’s security agencies — that requires the kind of deft diplomatic touch that many folks say Rice hasn’t always demonstrated a mastery of in the past. It’s easy for the National Security Council to deteriorate into turf and ego wars — Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell, the secretaries of defense and state, respectively, under President George W. Bush, couldn’t stand each other. Part of Rice’s charge is to make sure the nation’s security isn’t threatened by the kinds of personality conflicts that have followed her.
During the Clinton administration, in which she served on the National Security Council staff and as an assistant secretary of state, Rice famously delivered a single-digit salute to the veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Reviewing her 4½-year stint as Obama’s representative to the United Nations, fellow diplomats described her behavior as “undiplomatic” and “sometimes rather rude.” And after accusing Hillary Clinton of exercising the “wrong judgment” on foreign policy during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Rice found herself in the awkward position of working both as a subordinate of Clinton’s at the State Department and as an equal as a principal in National Security Council meetings.
Her team, split between New York and Washington, was an island unto itself within the State Department, and the natural bureaucratic tension was at times exacerbated by an uncooperative attitude. For example, Rice’s aides demanded — and got — readouts of Clinton’s meetings while resisting entreaties to send similar briefings on Rice’s sessions with foreign leaders to Clinton’s staff.
While she had hoped to succeed Clinton as secretary of state, Rice was so abrasive at times that she alienated members of the Senate, whom she needed to court to win a confirmation vote. Already facing an uphill battle because Republican lawmakers felt she had lied to the public about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Rice’s effort to court senators in private one-on-one sessions backfired.
Rice had appeared on a full round of Sunday morning talk shows the weekend after the Benghazi assault, claiming that a spontaneous street protest outside the compound, and fueled by an anti-Islamic video, morphed into a violent attack. Republicans criticized her for imagining a protest that never occurred, linking it directly to a rowdy demonstration at the U.S. Embassy embassy in Cairo, and saying both were inspired by an anti-Islamic video produced in the United States.
Some Democrats hope that an exhaustive New York Times investigation of the origins of the Benghazi assault, published late last month, will have the effect of exonerating Rice. While the Times’s story found that the video played a role in inciting militants, author David Kirkpatrick told “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory this past Sunday that Rice “made some clear misstatements there.”
When Obama picked her to succeed Tom Donilon as national security adviser, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observed that “Rice has star power … [but] she can also be her own worst enemy — using sharp words or elbows when a softer touch would work better.”
“I guess you could say I’m plain-spoken,” Rice told Stanford’s alumni magazine in 2000. “I can be diplomatic when I have to be. But I don’t have a lot of patience for B.S.”
Since taking over as the coordinator of national security policy in July, Rice hasn’t lost her tart tongue, but she’s begun to demonstrate that the caricature of her in Washington and foreign capitals may, in fact, lack dimension. In part, that’s a clear acknowledgment of her job change.
In her former post, as a supporting member of Obama’s war council, she was an ardent advocate for her views and those of the American operation at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York. But as national security adviser, Rice has to play referee among competing agencies. The new role requires an arbiter who is willing to step back a bit from advocacy and ensure every perspective is given proper consideration.
“She was aware of that coming in,” said Ben Chang, a former State Department and National Security Staff official who has known Rice since the Clinton administration.
In an emailed response to questions, Rice acknowledged that the roles are different but emphasized the similarity of her approach.
“I truly enjoyed my job as UN ambassador and found representing the United States at the United Nations and serving as a principal on his national security team to be challenging and rewarding. This experience gave me valuable perspective as I transitioned into my new role,” she wrote. “But regardless of where I sit at the table, my approach has been to give the president my best and unvarnished advice and to be straight with my colleagues on the national security team.”
Still, Rice’s lighter touch was noted in the internal debate over whether the United States should respond militarily to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Some had expected her to repeat a pattern of fierce liberal interventionism in the face of a potential genocide. But as the national security player closest in proximity and philosophy to the president, Rice can afford to hang back without fearing that she’ll lose influence. Like a point guard, she can be a star by elevating the play of those around her, including Obama.
“My approach is to stay focused on pragmatic solutions and to be a frank and honest broker, working closely with all the members of the president’s national security team,” she wrote.
“She is a vital partner and advocate for diplomacy and for the various viewpoints within the administration, and more than anything, she has the president’s back in policy discussions,” said a senior State Department official.
Internally, Rice has worked to send a message that she understands just how hard her aides work and that she wants to connect with them. In just the past two months, she has hosted a town hall-style meeting, a happy hour and a holiday party at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the bureaucratic temple that towers over the White House from the other side of a narrow service road.
The latter event, which is usually held at the more cozy Blair House, felt like a dressed-up company party in an office’s main conference room for those who wandered into the EEOB’s ornate, formal Indian Treaty Room. But down the hall, in another room, the lights were dimmed and one of her aides doubled as a DJ, pumping out a wedding-party playlist. Rice consulted with the DJ beforehand and specifically requested certain artists, including Stevie Wonder.
The keepers of America’s most vital national security secrets busted out to Michael Jackson and Rihanna, and even lined up for the Electric Slide. Rice herself avoided the embarrassment of line-dancing, but did hit the floor for some of the other tunes, according to sources in the room. Dorky as it might seem, Rice’s dancing reinforced the impression that some of her new charges say she’s left on them: She might be a tough customer, but she’stheir tough customer.
In part, that’s because she knows firsthand how demanding and unforgiving their jobs can be. A protégée of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Rice worked on the National Security Staff — then called the National Security Council staff — during the Clinton administration. She’s also close to Sandy Berger, the national security adviser to President Bill Clinton.
”Having served in the shoes of the staff I lead, I can relate to their challenges and aspirations, and hopefully I can help make working some of the toughest jobs even more rewarding for them,” Rice said, calling the roughly 300-member agency “about the finest and most dedicated group of foreign policy and national security professionals on the planet.”
Many of the staff are serving short stints on loan from other agencies, and they are all aware that their current job can be a powerful career springboard; Rice is living proof of that. They serve as the policy advisers to the National Security Council, which is made up of the so-called principals: the president, the vice president and the heads of various national security agencies. The national security adviser runs NSC meetings and uses her staff to coordinate policy in the interagency process.
The 49-year-old Rice relates better to the aides than did her predecessor, Donilon, who is nearly a decade older and considerably more formal, according to interviews with several current and former members of the National Security Staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity to compare two bosses. Her relationships with Albright and Berger, and her own experience as a member of the staff, have given her special insight into how to motivate her underlings — including making herself available to them — these sources said.
“You can e-mail her, and she’ll e-mail you back,” the NSS director said. “There’s plenty of access.”
Often, it’s such little things that suggest how attuned Rice is to the concerns of her aides.
Shortly after Obama took office in 2009, he changed the title of the organization from the National Security Council staff to the National Security Staff, a modification made to note the inclusion of homeland security officials in the operation. The name change, which went unnoticed by all but several hundred people in the country, didn’t go over well with the staff, many of whom wanted the prestige of the National Security Council imprimatur on their résumés. The venerable NSC designation is recognized throughout Washington and around the world, but the newer NSS formulation doesn’t carry as much heft. The change to NSS has been a sore point among the staff since it was made.
During a town hall meeting, held on Nov. 8 in an amphitheater-like space in the EEOB, Rice asked for a show of hands to determine whether folks preferred to be called the National Security Staff or the National Security Council staff, surely knowing full well that NSC staff would win out. Rice, aides say, understood that the small status symbol means a lot for morale.
“There’s just kind of a warmth toward NSS,” the director said. “It seemed like she had history there.”
Though it hasn’t happened yet, Rice immediately assigned lieutenants to explore how the change could be made. Barring a bureaucratic snafu, insiders expect the change to happen in the next several weeks.
In the same session, she talked about the challenges of balancing the round-the-clock nature of national security work with family life, recalling her own time working in the Clinton White House while pregnant with her son, Jake. That, staffers said, sent a message that Rice understands the sacrifices they make to stay at their cramped desks from shortly after dawn to well past dusk most days.
For some who have known Rice longer, the National Security Staff members are just getting a glimpse of a warmer side of Rice that has always been there — even if it has sometimes been obscured by her high-profile dust-ups.
In 2012, when Chang’s mother was ill and he was trying to figure out his next job path, he shot an email to Rice to ask for guidance. He didn’t expect much more than an email response back. Instead, she called and talked him through his options.
“She was just very supportive in a personal way,” Chang said.
In early November of this year, Rice danced to Jackson’s “Thriller” at Chang’s wedding.
While she may still rub some outsiders the wrong way, there’s little question that she knows how to foster an inclusive atmosphere within her circle — whether on the dance floor or in the Situation Room.
“Susan is first of all incredibly, incredibly smart and incisive and intent on gathering as much information from everyone at the table as possible,” Chang said. “She’s very driven and she will expect the same from her team. She puts a great value on team.”
Rice is fully aware that her style can ruffle feathers, even among fellow administration officials.
“People have called me brusque, aggressive, abrasive,” she joked at the United Nations Correspondents Association gala in 2012. “Of course, they don’t say that to my face, because they know I’d kick their butts.”
But she’s now showing a different side of herself.
As she headed out of the Oval Office at the end of a meeting on the Friday before Thanksgiving, just before departing on a secret trip to Afghanistan to assess the situation there from the ground level, Obama asked Rice to wait for a moment. Then he hugged her.
“That’s not for you,” the president explained. “That’s for our men and women in Afghanistan who are doing so much. Tell them that I love them and tell them that I said ‘Thank you.’”
So, when Rice tried to wrap her head around the state of the war during a whirlwind tour of U.S. bases, she wrapped her arms around American troops — male and female — to let them know how she and Obama felt about their service. While the image might be tough for some in Washington to conjure, the White House posted pictures.
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