WASHINGTON – As a hard-driving star point guard on her high school basketball team, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice wasn’t afraid to use sharp elbows to reach her goal. It’s a style that’s carried from the court through a meteoric career as a U.S. diplomat, and one that’s earned her as many detractors as supporters along the way.
As President Barack Obama’s presumed choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Rice’s style, temperament and her role in explaining the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, have come under scrutiny. Questions have arisen about whether she is too undiplomatic to be America’s top diplomat.
“She does have that point guard mentality: the driver, the catalyst. She wants to be the one out front pushing the agenda and driving the body forward,” said Ed Luck, dean of the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, a former special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and a Rice fan. “I’m sure, through the years, her more abusive side has stuck with some people.”
From Washington to New York to world capitals, there are varying views of the 48-year-old Rice: Is she the blunt, ambitious diplomat who, as a 28-year-old National Security Council aide, questioned whether President Bill Clinton should use the term “genocide” about the deadly situation in Rwanda because it could negatively impact the mid-term elections; the person who reportedly made an obscene gesture toward Clinton-era diplomat Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting; or the U.N. ambassador who took to Twitter to call out Russia and China in plainspoken language for deep-sixing a resolution condemning the crackdown in Syria?
Or is she the self-assured high school valedictorian, Stanford University graduate, Rhodes scholar and child of inner-circle Washington who rose to assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton; vowed to never again be a bystander when a Rwanda-style genocide occurs; and helped convince Obama to intervene militarily in Libya last year while helping push through a U.N. resolution giving the administration political cover to do it?
Rice, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged that patience hasn’t always been one of her virtues and that she can be a tough customer when crossed. She makes no apologies for that.
“I’m straightforward. People know when they talk to me that what they see is what they get – that I’m not playing games,” Rice said in “How Great Women Lead,” a book by Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane released in April. “They see me as pretty open and collaborative, tough when I need to be, but not confrontational for its own sake.”
She told the authors, “I think people know not to mess with me,” adding, “And if they haven’t learned, and they try, they will learn.”
That warning hasn’t prevented a flow of Republican lawmakers from trying to mess with her chances of becoming secretary of state. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. – whom Rice mocked during the 2008 presidential election for wearing a flak jacket while touring a Baghdad market – is leading the charge against her, calling her unqualified for the job. Other Republicans joined McCain’s chorus by branding Rice an Obama political toady who besmirched her diplomatic title by going on Sunday news shows so close to a highly contested presidential election and firmly, but incorrectly, stating that the Benghazi attack was the outcome of spontaneous demonstrations and not terrorism.
“I don’t think people around here want in the secretary of state’s office someone who’s a political operative,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. “But I’ll give her a fair hearing. It could well be that my perceptions are different than reality.”
Further complicating Rice’s potential path to Foggy Bottom is the fact that Rice and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice properly revealed the stock on government financial disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she becomes secretary of state, she could face a potential conflict of interest, as one of her first acts may involve the pipeline’s permit.
Rice’s backers say some of the opposition to her potential nomination seems more personal than professional. They point to her clash with McCain in 2008 and suggest that opponent Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham is using the Benghazi issue to tack more to the right as he faces re-election in South Carolina in 2014.