Susan Rice Talks Of Balancing Career And Motherhood, Reflects On Benghazi

Oct 8, 2019
Originally published on October 8, 2019 11:31 am

Looking back at more than 25 years in public service, Susan Rice — former U.N. ambassador for the United States and national security adviser to President Barack Obama — describes much of her career as a balancing act.

Sometimes, that meant toeing the line between her personal and professional life.

"My now 22-year-old son, in fact, learned to walk in the halls of the State Department," recalls Rice in an interview with NPR. "And there were those who thought that was a little bit inappropriate for the staid halls of the State Department." But luckily, she says, she had the support of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Other times, Rice had to balance her ambition with her identity as a person of color: At the age of 28, having just started her career in government, Rice turned down a position working on African policy for the Clinton administration out of fear of pigeonholing herself. She worried "this predominantly white national security establishment would see [her] as black, working on Africa and therefore not capable of, or suited to, do anything else."

Rice's new memoir, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, is filled with such stories: those of incredible opportunities, and of tough decisions. It spans not only many of the complex issues she faced in the Clinton and Obama administrations, but also the complexity of being an African American woman in government.

In her interview with Morning Edition, Rice shares intimate insights from her life, and from her career — from the fallout after Benghazi in 2012, to Russian interference in the 2016 election; from being one of the nation's youngest assistant secretaries of state, to reflections on the Trump administration.

Interview Highlights

On succeeding in a field dominated by white men

Well, as I write in the book, I was born and raised here in Washington D.C., and I was blessed by parents who had come from pretty limited, modest circumstances, and had risen to the top of their fields. My father, in the field of economics, became a governor of the Federal Reserve. My mother coming from Jamaican immigrants to Maine, rose to be a leader in the corporate world, and a person who was known as the mother of Pell Grants. So I was blessed to have parents who taught me from a very early stage that I could do what I set out to do.

And while I lived in a society, you know, having been born here in Washington in the 1960s, where clearly racism and prejudice were a major factor, they taught me in a very unusual way not to allow that to diminish my own sense of self. So whether I was a rare minority in a predominantly white elite girls school here in Washington D.C., or at Stanford or Oxford where I did my graduate studies, I was accustomed to not being in any way oblivious to the fact that I was a minority. I was very conscious of that, but I didn't allow it to diminish my sense of worth and my sense of commitment to doing my best.

And so by the time I went through all of that to get to the White House at 28 and start my first job in government, I felt as well-equipped as I could for anybody at that age, relatively young, to have that responsibility. And I have to say that even though it was, and is still, a predominantly male field — less so than it was some 25, 30 years ago in a very still white field — I was very fortunate to have mentors early in my career. People like Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former national or security advisers Tony Lake and Sandy Berger, who took an interest in me. [I had] male and female mentors who helped me succeed.

On being a mother and working in government

That was part of what made my leadership role a bit unusual, because I wanted to continue to be able to breastfeed our baby as long as possible. And so I would bring him into the State Department at different times during the day, and feed. Or if I couldn't I would pump and store my breast milk. My now 22-year-old son, in fact, learned to walk in the halls of the State Department, pushing one of those little toys to help him build his skills. And so there were those who thought that that was a little bit inappropriate for the staid halls of the State Department. ...

But the fact of the matter is I was fortunate in that context. The secretary of state was Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, somebody I've known for years who was very supportive not only of me personally, but of my effort to be a mother and be in that role at the same time. And my senior colleagues who worked most closely with me in the front office of the Africa bureau were all extraordinary as well.

On resisting being pigeonholed early in her career

Well I was concerned, back even at that early age of not quite 28, that as an African American woman entering the field of national security and foreign policy for the first time, that if I accepted a job in African policy at that stage without having demonstrated my ability to work on a wider range of issues, I feared, I think legitimately, ... that I might well get pigeonholed in Africa. That people in this predominantly white national security establishment would see me as black working on Africa — and therefore not capable of, or suited to do, anything else. And I made that choice. Looking back on it, it was quite a bracing thing to do to turn down at that age a substantive policy job.

On being criticized for Benghazi

What bothers me more than anything is that we lost four Americans. And [Ambassador] Chris Stevens was a colleague, and a friend of mine. And in the subsequent politicized controversy, both over what I said, and the fact that while most of what I shared at the time turned out to be factual, in one important respect it was wrong. And we learned that subsequently. I was accused of lying, of being incompetent, untrustworthy. And then subsequently, Secretary Clinton and many others were raked over the coals for various aspects of Benghazi ...

What troubles me the most is that all of these political issues — which certainly merit investigation and they were investigated eight times by eight committees — overshadowed the loss of these four Americans. And the focus shifted to a political "gotcha" game, rather than the fact that we had dedicated public servants who gave their lives in a terrorist attack. And the issue is how do we prevent that in the future? And what do we, what did we learn from it?

More importantly as we look to the region beyond — Chris Stevens gave his life to help Libya achieve some degree of unity and freedom in the wake of [former dictator Moammar] Gaddafi — Washington lost interest in Libya after that to a large extent.

On not regretting Libya involvement

I personally don't think it was the wrong decision. Because we were able to save tens of thousands of innocent lives that were literally about to be lost in Benghazi. And we were able to do that with a very relatively modest expenditure of U.S. effort and resources. We didn't lose, thankfully, a single American military soldier or airmen.

We didn't have to deploy forces on the ground. It was a mission that we were able to carry out substantially if not entirely through air power, in conjunction with our NATO allies. So we had a coalition with us. So I don't personally regret the decision to do it. I regret to some extent that in the aftermath we weren't able as an international community led by the United States to sustain sufficient focus and attention, which might have made a difference in the aftermath.

On predicting the presidency of Donald Trump in 2015

We were in Alaska, on a visit focused on climate change. And we were just having a relaxed discussion, bantering about politics and current events. And I ventured the argument that I could see Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination. At that point I was not suggesting he would win the presidency, but just that I could see a path by which he could get the nomination and this was Aug. 7, 2015. So very much early in the process. ...

But I still thought that there was a possibility he could gain the nomination and what was notable about the dinner was everybody else. Those were the political experts around the table [saying], "No, no, no there's no way that's gonna happen. No, no, no." I was almost shouted down. And so being the national security adviser, the apolitical person at the table, I decided to stand corrected by those who knew better than I. And I wish I'd been wrong.

Andee Tagle and Vincent Acovino produced this piece for the web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


Susan Rice, who has held some vital U.S. government jobs, once said no to one of them. Before she was a top adviser for President Obama, President Clinton's administration offered her work on issues relating to Africa.

SUSAN RICE: I feared that I might well get pigeonholed in Africa, that people in this predominantly white national security establishment would see me as black working on Africa and therefore not capable of or suited to do anything else.

MARTIN: As a result, Rice declined that particular job offer, wanting to prove herself in a different position first. She recounts her rise in a new memoir titled "Tough Love." The former national security adviser talked to Steve about that moment.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: That story shows you getting offered something that seems really nice by a powerful person. And you say no - which is a hard thing to do. Are you good at that?

RICE: (Laughter) I think my kids would tell you I'm good at saying no.


RICE: I don't know that I'm - yes, I guess when I need to say no, I'm certainly comfortable saying no. My dad had a mantra that comes from his experience growing up in the segregated South in the '20s and '30s and serving in a segregated Air Force at Tuskegee during World War II. He always told me and my brother, don't take crap off of anybody.

INSKEEP: Rice thrived in one Democratic administration. She became a senior figure in the next - first President Obama's U.N. ambassador, then national security adviser. She was eventually drawn into the partisan fights of Obama's time, and that included the crisis that emerged in the summer of 2016. She was in the White House when the CIA director first told her of Russia's interference in that year's presidential election.

What did you do?

RICE: Well, we ran right upstairs to the Oval Office and interrupted the president.

INSKEEP: And soon learned the challenges of responding in a politically divisive time - the Obama administration tried to warn all 50 states that their election systems could be hacked. Rice says some didn't want to hear it.

RICE: They didn't view our concern as being based on national security or apolitical. They viewed it as...

INSKEEP: You said...

RICE: ...Partisan.

INSKEEP: ...Republican-governed states...

RICE: Some of the red states...

INSKEEP: Some of the red states...

RICE: ...Not all of them. But they resisted...

INSKEEP: ...Essentially didn't trust you or didn't trust the president - didn't trust the administration.

RICE: Didn't trust the administration.

INSKEEP: Nor did Republicans in Congress. In Rice's telling, the president wanted a bipartisan warning of the threat. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell resisted. President Obama did issue a warning to Russia's Vladimir Putin to cut it out, but it was hard to do much more.

RICE: We worked behind the scenes to ready a series of punitive measures to retaliate against Russia should the president decide - or I should say, when the president decided it was necessary to do so.

INSKEEP: You didn't retaliate before the election.

RICE: We chose not to retaliate before the election because we had not seen further evidence of the Russians pursuing the kinds of behavior that we were most concerned about and that the president had warned Putin about - infiltrating the state election systems and manipulating the voter registration or the voter rolls. What we didn't want to do was to preemptively punish the Russians before the election if they hadn't done precisely what we were most concerned about because we feared it might prompt them to do it.

INSKEEP: In a way, the administration was deterred by Russia. You were fearful of a greater Russian interference in the election, and so you restrained yourselves from...

RICE: I wouldn't say we were fearful or deterred. We made a judgment that what was most important at that point was preserving the integrity of our electoral processes. But what we didn't want to do, Steve, was play into the Russian narrative and, frankly, what was then Donald Trump's narrative, which is that the election is rigged; this is not going to be fair.

INSKEEP: This becomes, in a way, a story about vulnerabilities of democracy. Doesn't it? I'm thinking about the way you write of how to tell the public about this issue. And of course, President Obama is the president. But the decision is made not to have him say it because it would seem too political if the president said it.

RICE: The decision was made that it would be better having it come from the leadership of our intelligence community because we didn't want to play into a narrative that somehow this was a political statement.

INSKEEP: Your description of Mitch McConnell gets to another thing. When you first found this information, it was so urgent you said you interrupted the president in a meeting. And then it took weeks and weeks and weeks to bring the rest of the government on board to the extent that you could.

RICE: Well, it took weeks for CIA Director John Brennan to be granted an audience with each of the so-called Gang of Eight...

INSKEEP: The top...

RICE: ...The top leadership...

INSKEEP: ...Congressional leaders, yeah.

RICE: ...Some of whom made themselves readily available. But a couple of them, including Majority Leader McConnell, would not make themselves available until after Labor Day.

INSKEEP: Mitch McConnell's people have defended him and said you don't really understand what happened in those private meetings; he was not as obstructive as people portray him. Are you certain that he was the major issue in getting bipartisan agreement, that this was happening and that this was a problem?

RICE: Steve, I recognize that it would be in the interest of his team to try to obscure that. I have no doubt he was the - what we used to call the long pole in the tent. He was the one who held up the statement and made it very difficult, ultimately, to achieve. And when we got it, he watered it down to something that was almost indecipherable.

INSKEEP: Would you do anything differently if you could go back to 2016?

RICE: Yes. What I regret is that after the election, when we chose to impose sanctions and other punitive measures against the Russians - and they were substantial in many different respects - economic, cyber, diplomatic and otherwise - we made a recommendation to the president - so this is really on the Cabinet principals that I chaired - not to impose the most painful sectoral economic sanctions on Russia. They would have hurt our European allies almost as much as they would have hurt the Russians.

INSKEEP: Because they're economically intertwined with Russia.

RICE: Yes. And secondly, we were mindful of the fact that just three or four weeks later, President-elect Trump was going to take office. We were very concerned that if we had imposed the harshest possible sanctions that a brand-new president would turn around and undo them and make us all look weak and feckless.

INSKEEP: But would you today, if you could go back...

RICE: Yes. And that's why...

INSKEEP: ...You would impose those stronger sanctions?

RICE: I would because I think we have seen, in subsequent months and years, that the Russians are essentially still undeterred.

INSKEEP: The memoir from Ambassador Susan Rice is called "Tough Love."

Thanks so much.

RICE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEST PESSIMIST'S "IT'S ONLY WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.