Distinguished Voices Series with Susan E. Rice

Thursday, November 14, 2019
Jim Young/Reuters
Susan E. Rice

Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow, American University; Former National Security Advisor; Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Author, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For         


President, Council on Foreign Relations

Susan Rice discusses her new book Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, which is a look back on her dynamic career in public service.  


HAASS: Well, you brought your crowd.

RICE: I guess so. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Well, good evening—oh, afternoon. I apologize. It’s dark, it throws me off.

RICE: It’s still good evening?

HAASS: It is good evening, OK?

RICE: Good evening. I’ll say it with confidence. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Do you want to do the introduction?

RICE: Sure. (Laughter.)

HAASS: OK. Welcome to the Council and to the twenty-fourth Term Member Conference. For those of you who don’t know me, besides being fortunate, I’m Richard Haass. I’m president of the Council. And we’re thrilled that so many of you are here tonight for this session, for the subsequent session, and for tomorrow’s panels and breakouts.

And before I introduce Ambassador Rice I just want to say a few things about your program. This is the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program. And it provides people such as yourselves, young professionals form all sorts of fields, the opportunity to develop your interest in foreign policy and international relations. Do it lots of way. For us, it’s an important part of our mission. People think of us as a think tank, or a publisher, or an educational institution. But I like to think we’re in the talent development business. We have close to, what, seven hundred fifty or eight hundred term members. Every years we have five military fellows. Something like 60 or 70 percent of our military fellows have gone on to make admiral or general.

We have all sorts of international affairs fellows. I don’t think you were one, were you? But Condi Rice—for example. Condi’s first experience in government was at the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a Council international affairs fellow. Samantha Power worked for this young senator named Barack Obama. And the rest, as they say, is history. So the IAF has been a great program for introducing people to government, and vice versa. We just got a big grant and we’re going to be able to start for the first time a paid internship program. So we’ll have over a hundred interns a year. And we’re really excited because regardless of means or background we’ll be able to get people to apply. And over the course of a decade, that’s a thousand more young people.

RICE: Will they all be based at the Council or will you farm them out.

HAASS: They’ll be in the Council in New York or Washington. So we’re really—so, again, this is an important part of what it is we do. It’s all made possible, this program, the term program, by the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation. And Andrew Gundlach, who’s a member of the family and a member of the Council, has been great. I want to thank also—where’s Nancy Bodurtha, is she here? And Meaghan Fulco. Is Meagan here? Yeah. (Cheers, applause.) They organized this. And Nancy in particular I have to thank, because she basically oversee the membership process. So you owe it all to her. (Laughter.) And we’re hoping that more than three hundred term members will be here between today and tomorrow. And tonight your immediate reward—not after this event but after the next event on the Middle East, is a reception. And we will accept drivers licenses or anything else as proof of age. (Laughter.)

So Susan Rice—Ambassador Susan Rice—full disclosure, we’ve known each other a long time, friends. But more important for our purposes tonight, she served, as you know, first as the U.S. perm rep, permanent representative to the United Nations in the Obama administration, and then she went on to be the national security advisor. She’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former term member. So you too—you too! (Laughter, applause.) Could be sitting in that chair. And she was appointed assistant secretary of state and confirmed as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, at the age of thirty-two. Youngest assistant secretary in American history. So those of you who are thirty-three and have not yet made assistant secretary—(laughter)—I don’t know what you’ve been doing.

RICE: Richard, I think I’m the youngest regional assistant secretary. I think Dina Powell was younger when she got hers.

HAASS: OK. Thank you for that clarification. Who knew? Dina, actually. Dina’s on my cellphone calling me now.

RICE: Dina knows, right? (Laughter.)

HAASS: Complaining there. Susan has done many things, but most recently produced this. (Applause.)

RICE: Thank you!

HAASS: Title is Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For. Just came out last month, early October of this year.

RICE: Yeah.

HAASS: And she’s traveling around talking about the book and all sorts of related issues. This meeting is part of what we call our Distinguished Voices Series here at the Council. It’s the one part of the Term Member Conference we will do on the record. Just this week we had another Distinguished Voice meeting in Washington with Ted Koppel. So it’s been a great week for us.

RICE: Selling a book too?


RICE: OK. (Laughter.)

HAASS: No. He was just here out of the goodness of his heart. (Laughter.)

RICE: Hey, that is why I’m here. Because I wanted to spend time with you guys, quite honestly. Because you’re not paying me anything. You’re not buying my books. By the way my books are for sale here. (Laughter.) But, yeah, they didn’t buy them, which is what I usually look for. But anyway. (Laughter.)

HAASS: That’s why we—we’re a nonprofit institution. (Laughter.)

So we’re going to have a conversation. You can see it’s going to be difficult. I’ve already lost control. And then we’re going to turn it over to you all. But let’s talk about your career, because it has been a career of public service. You didn’t go to Goldman Sachs, and you didn’t go to a law firm. And my favorite two-word question, how come? Why did you go in the direction you did?

RICE: Well, I did go to McKinsey and Company for a couple of years after I finished my Ph.D. in international relations. But the backstory really is who I am and where I came from. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. (Cheers.) Yeah.

HAASS: Home of the Nationals, yeah.

RICE: That too. That too. (Applause.) In a family where really public service was the family business. My father had been an economist and served at the Treasury Department, and the World Bank, and ultimately was a governor of the Federal Reserve. My mom never was in government, but she spent her whole career—the bulk of her career working on public policy, particularly access to higher education for low-income people. And her greatest achievement in my judgement was being deemed the mother of the Pell Grant program. She was instrumental in getting that program established and sustained, which has enabled eighty million Americans to go to college.

HAASS: My first job in Washington was working for Senator Claiborne Pell.

RICE: There you go. So Lois Rice and Claiborne Pell were in lockstep, working hand-in-hand. But I was raised in an environment where the business was government, and policy, and how to make a difference. And I came from parents who really had service in their souls and instilled that in me and my brother. And the service didn’t have to be in government. It didn’t have to be in uniform. It didn’t have to be formal. But it had to be about doing something broader than myself and contributing in some way. And so I just had a passion for it. And at one point I thought I might want to run for office. But being from Washington, D.C., the prospects of that were—

HAASS: Lots of electoral votes.

RICE: Yeah. Well, a lot of votes in Congress, more relevant. But I also discovered at an early age that I could serve by working in the executive branch. And I had early opportunities to do that. And one thing led to another. And you know, I’m here.

HAASS: Now the book—I want to talk about the book for one second before I go to policy issues. The book is surprisingly personal. We learn about—a lot about your kids. We learn about your marriage. We learn about your folks. And I should say that I knew your mom from my time at Brookings. There’s a lot about that. We learn about your blood pressure. We learn a lot about you. Why did—what are you hoping people take away from the book?

RICE: Well, I’m hoping that people will see a career and a life in service, but also a background and an upbringing that’s somewhat unusual for a person in the roles that I’ve been in. I’m the descendent of slaves from South Carolina on the one hand, and of immigrants from Jamaica who moved to Portland, Maine on the other hand. And both sides of my family prioritized education, and prioritized service, and worked to bring each subsequent generation a little bit higher. And I learned a fair bit from my experiences being part of that family and my upbringing in Washington, D.C., but also from my service that I think is relevant to anyone who wants to compete and thrive in unforgiving environments. And if they’ve been knocked down, as I have on a couple of occasions, then to know how to get back up.

So I wanted to share that experience. And I also, frankly, wanted to tell my own story in my own words because for a long period of time in the second term of the Obama administration, after I’d become a nationally known figure because of my role going on the talk shows following the Benghazi terrorist attack, I’d sort of been characterized and mischaracterized on various sides of the political spectrum, at a point in my life when my job was to represent the United States and to speak for our country, and our president, and not for myself. So I in essence had to sit there with my mouth shut while people defined me for me, which is the exact opposite of how my parents raised me. And so this was my chance, in part, also to tell my own story in my own words. And that’s also why I—it’s as personal as it is, because I felt to do that faithfully and credibly it had to be.

HAASS: Since you raised it, you’ve changed the order of my questions.

RICE: Sorry.

HAASS: No. I’m just a—you know.

RICE: You’ve already admitted to losing control.

HAASS: That’s true. (Laughter.) Since you raised Benghazi, let’s raise it, but not dwell on it, in the sense of other than the lesson of being careful before you agree to do all five Sunday shows—

RICE: Which is a lesson.

HAASS: Which is a lesson. (Laughter.)

RICE: And since you know my mother you would not get surprised by the revelation that my mother told me not to do it.

HAASS: Always listen to your mother.

RICE: And that’s the lesson. That’s the overarching lesson of the book, is always listen to your mother. (Laughter.)

HAASS: What else, though? I mean, Benghazi was brutal for you. I mean, it was a—you know, you were—it was your moment, shall we say, in the arena, and then some. So how do you come away from it? How did it change you? It obviously had impact on your career and the rest. Obviously, it had impact on your family. And you now have three—what, three, four, five years of hindsight looking back on it? So what’s your take on it now?

RICE: Well, how did it change me? I think it frankly made me tougher and wiser. And it made me also—

HAASS: Can I just say—does everybody—when I say Benghazi, does everybody know the story, or do we need a thirty-second recap? Want to give a thirty-second recap, because you were in the middle of it? (Laughter.)

RICE: It’s actually refreshing that I have to give a thirty-second recap. OK. September 11, 2012. Our diplomatic facilities in Benghazi sustained a brutal terrorist attack. We lost four Americans including our ambassador, Chris Stevens. On the Sunday following that Tuesday, I was asked by the White House to go on all five Sunday shows to talk not only about what had happened there, but also what had happened around the Arab and Muslim world, where a number of our facilities had come under either siege or protest. And also, because this was about ten days before the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and I was the U.N. ambassador, to deal with some of the issues that were coming up in relation to that.

I went on the Sunday shows and I provided to the American people the best information that we had at that time. Talking points that I used were developed and approved by the intelligence community. And they were our best unclassified rendition of what we understood to be the case. I knew them to be accurate, because I was a consumer of all of our intelligence and had just had the latest the day before. And I went out and I shared that message. And within about ten days the intelligence community revised its assessment and indicated that despite what—the information they’d given me and members of Congress that had been shared with the public, there was some new information that changed the substance.

But this was in the middle of President Obama’s reelection campaign running against Mitt Romney. It was a political hothouse. And I was robustly attacked for lying. I was accused of being, you know, literally a liar, incompetent, untrustworthy, a whole bunch of other epithets. One member of Congress who just announced his resignation this week called for my resignation, Peter King. And it was just a—you know, it was a hothouse. And the crazy thing was, it persisted beyond the election. And so my integrity was impugned and, you know, my intelligence as well. And it was painful.

So how am I different? I think I’m tougher and wiser. Tougher because you either endure that or you don’t. (Laughs.) And I wasn’t prepared to be taken down by something that, frankly, wasn’t my fault. We’ve now had eight congressional committees review all aspects of Benghazi. And every one of them, including the great Trey Gowdy’s one, concluded that neither I nor anybody in the administration had deliberately misled the American people. And yet that stigma is still attached to me by some—except those of you good people who don’t know what Benghazi is. So bless you. (Laughter.)

HAASS: It’s the ignorance is bliss rule of—

RICE: So that—so the last point is, you know, as this continued in a sustained way, and as I was—after President Obama was reelected—being one of at least two people who were being seriously considered for the job of secretary of state, I decided in December to withdraw my name for consideration for secretary of state. Not because—actually, because the Democrats controlled the Senate—not because I thought I couldn’t get confirmed, but because I thought it would be a long and bloody battle, and that it would be costly to the president’s second-term agenda and also to my family.

HAASS: And you ended up—

RICE: So I ended up being national security advisor, which was a great outcome.

HAASS: Which was pretty cool.

RICE: Yeah. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Talk about that job. You in your book and most people who have looked at it always hold Brent Scowcroft to be the gold standard, the model. Why is that? What was it about the way he ran it? And I should—full disclosure—I worked for—

RICE: You worked for Brent. (Laughs.)

HAASS: For four years. He was—he was the only person to be national security advisor twice. He did it for President Ford in the latter part of his presidency, and then he did it for President Bush 41 for all four years, so.

RICE: So I think that, first of all, Brent—most people look at the—when they talk about the Scowcroft model, they’re talking about his second shot at it. So maybe if we all had a second shot we’d get it right. (Laughter.) Not me.

HAASS: (Laughs.) So who are you supporting?

RICE: Not me. That’s—(laughs)—anyway. (Laughter.) What made—what made, I think, Brent—and I’ll let you elaborate on this. I think first of all, he’s a man of enormous experience, and intellect, and integrity. And he ran a very tight, very small by today’s standards, national security council staff that played the very traditional role of coordinating, rather than implementing or even necessarily to a great extent, formulating policy.

Now, the problem with that model in today’s context is that it’s completely, I think—I don’t think it can be reconstituted. So many things have changed. For one thing, we now have, you know, cable news of all different flavors twenty-four/seven. Social media, which has changed entirely—excuse me—the pace and the substance of what a policy team has to deal with you. We now have something called homeland security, and we’ve folded in the Homeland Security Council. And we have the National Economic Council, which until last week or whenever was shared with the National Security Council.

And so there’s been a ballooning of the apparatus of the NSC, which actually in my tenure we tried to pare back carefully, not for any political purpose but for the purposes of efficacy. And yet, you know, what Brent had that was correct was a notion that when the NSC is optimizing it is playing primarily a coordinating function and eliciting the most out of the agencies as possible.

HAASS: The only caveat I’d probably say is there was a lot of formulation, it’s just the formulation never got in the way of the coordinating. So Brent was—pushed his own views. Those of us on the staff did. But we never let the advocacy role interfere with the coordinating role. So we would go to the president and say: This is where the interagency is, this is where we come out, and why, and let the president decide.

RICE: And I think, at least in the NSCs I worked in—I worked in the Clinton NSC as a staffer and then obviously in the Obama NSC as the national security advisor. I think that piece of it I feel like we did a decent job of. I think the part where we were criticized, at least in the Obama administration, was for being very hands-on in our dealings with the agencies. And frankly, as I say in the book, we were serving a hands-on president and that’s what he expected and demanded. And quite frankly, given the alternative model that’s been demonstrated of late—(laughter)—I would take that as preferable.

HAASS: One of the advantages historians have over journalists is time. And they get a little bit of a—hopefully with distance comes perspective. Not always, but it can. So now it’s been three years, essentially, since you stepped out of government. What is your now reading? If you had to describe the Obama foreign policy legacy what do you think of—what do you think it is?

RICE: Well, it’s—I don’t have a soundbite for it. But what I’d say is I think we effectively leveraged our alliances and partnerships to address key global concerns, and concerns that affected the United States. Whether it was working to negotiate and agree the Paris Climate Agreement, or the Iran nuclear agreement, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the coalition to fight ISIS, or to sustain ours and NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, or to fight the Ebola epidemic. We effectively brought allies and partners together to address those complex challenges and did so even as we had to confront many of them simultaneously. And I think if there’s a hallmark, it’s that we did not at any stage lose that ability to rally people to join with us on things of various kinds of consequence.

HAASS: Do you think it’s fair when people look at the non-use—the non-physical response to Syrian use of chemical weapons, the non-follow-up of the intervention in Libya after Gadhafi was removed, as some would argue—and I would argue; I’m one of those some sometimes—that Obama introduced elements of retrenchment which this administration had magnified dramatically, but that he is to some extent going to be understood historically as a president who began a process of American pullback, after George W. Bush was very much going in the other direction. Some would say that George W. Bush was guilty of overreach, but Obama introduced a degree of underreach.

RICE: I would put it—no, I wouldn’t subscribe to that, in your terms. But here’s what I would say: I treat in the book, Tough Love, both Libya and Syria in some depth. And I think, you know, President Obama made the decision to intervene in Libya. It was a tough call, but that’s what he decided to do. In my judgement, that was the right choice. It was a relatively economical and, in terms of human lives, low-cost way to protect civilians and address an immediate humanitarian imperative. Where I think we made—where we fell short in Libya, and I say this quite frankly, is that the United States working with NATO, working with Arab countries, working with the U.N., where I was at the time, did not have sufficient focus and sustained involvement in the follow up in trying to see if we could enable the—or support the Libyans in building a unitary country. It had never been anything but a one-man show. It didn’t have the institutions of state.

And because—and this is my own opinion, as I write—because I think there was a lot of division and ambivalence within the administration about the wisdom in the first place of becoming involved in Libya, and then a year later because of Benghazi, which sort of exacerbated things, the appetite in Washington for being as engaged as I think we should have been, in retrospect in the aftermath, was lacking. And then in the second term, we came back to it with more sustained focus and attention, but I think arguably that was too late. And so my critique of what we did on Libya is that we failed to be as engaged as we could have been in the aftermath. I don’t know that that would have enabled Libya to become, you know, a functioning country, but we really won’t know because I don’t think we fully tried.

Syria, I think, is different. And I fully recognize that many people think that, you know, by not using force without congressional authorization to respond to the chemical weapons attack that we somehow signaled that we were abandoning the Middle East. I think it’s much more complicated than that. And I don’t know if—can I spend a few seconds just? So there are three aspects in my judgement of the challenge we faced in Syria. One was the chemical weapons. Two was the question of to what extent should the United States get involved directly militarily in the Syrian civil conflict on the side of the opposition with the aim of toppling Assad? And three was the fight against ISIS.

So President Obama decided clearly and quickly that once ISIS emerged that we had to take that fight to them, but did it by, with, and through partners, in the terminology of the Defense Department. So that was the Kurds, and the Arabs in Syria, and the Iraqi Army as it was reconstituted in Iraq. On the chemical weapons thing, though, which is the one that I think gets the most attention, as you know, he had—President Obama had decided to strike, and then decided to pull back and seek congressional authorization prior to that. And he did that because he anticipated that this military involvement could well extend beyond a handful of strikes, that it could become a more extended thing. And he felt that after Iraq, and Libya, and Afghanistan, that he would be wise to have the backing of Congress, and through Congress the American people.

As I write in the book, I was the only one of President Obama’s senior foreign policies advisors or members of the principals committee that argued at the time that we should go ahead and strike without congressional authorization. And I did that not because I disagreed with his logic, but because I really believed we weren’t going to get congressional authorization. And I ironically, maybe my cynicism was born of my experience less than a year earlier following Benghazi. But I figured that the Republicans weren’t going to give him anything he wanted, even if they agreed that it was right. And the Democrats on this would not be supportive because they didn’t want to have to take a vote in favor of another conflict in the Middle East.

I also write in the book that I think I was right on the politics but wrong on the policy, in the sense that, you know, we didn’t get the authorization but in failing to get the authorization we ended up negotiating with the Russians, with the U.N., with others to achieve the removal and destruction of 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons. Now, we thought at the time that that was the entirety, or almost the entirety. And then we saw in the—clearly in the early stages of the Trump administration that it wasn’t. And so President Trump took President Obama’s strike list off the shelf and employed it in a night of strikes, which I supported in 2017. And then he did it again in 2018. And nothing happened—i.e., there was no diplomatic follow up, nothing on the ground changed. I and others probably felt good for a few hours.

But whatever chemical weapons were there are still there and probably more. So the reason I think I was wrong on the policy is I’d rather than 1,300 metric tons out and destroyed than zero. But neither is a satisfactory outcome.

HAASS: We will not debate on just soliciting and eliciting—

RICE: But if that leads to—if the conclusion from that is retrenchment, then I think you got to look at the entirety of it. We had more—we left the region with more forces in places than when we went there. We engaged in the Iran deal, which I don’t think I would call retrenchment. We—you know, we remained in Afghanistan. I mean, you can—we put more forces back in Iraq when we had to because of ISIS. But what President Obama’s view was, was the Middle East, is you know, a place where you can put infinite quantities of resources and not necessarily get altogether clear-cut outcomes. And he did effect the rebalance to Asia, which I think was a net positive. And I think in some quarters that was viewed as also a retreat from the Middle East.

So debate me. Come on, man. (Laughter.)

HAASS: OK. Happy to. I think it’s seen as retrenchment because one was Libya, you talked about. I think Syria, we should have used military force. And indeed, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with a couple of cruise missile strikes. I would have said: Take out the Syrian Air Force. That was our moment. The Russians weren’t in yet. And I thought it would have underscored the importance that people can’t use chemical weapons with impunity. I think you all ran into trouble when you said Assad must go, and the gap between your rhetoric—

RICE: I agree with that.

HAASS: —and then your lack of follow up created a gap. Afghanistan you built up, but the whole idea was to get out after eighteen months. So it signaled that we weren’t going to stay, even though that was changed. Iraq we talked about—

RICE: But although that was changed. So we stayed in Afghanistan because conditions necessitated it.

HAASS: But the original decision that was announced was the eighteen month.

RICE: Yeah.

HAASS: I’m just saying—I didn’t say a withdrawal. I said a retrenchment. I think it was retrenchment. (Laughter.) And I think it did signal—look, I think what this administration did with the Kurds, I think what the previous administration did with the chemicals, I think both signaled a certain lack of American dependability.

RICE: But didn’t President Bush negotiate an arrangement where we would withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011?

HAASS: He did. He did. And—

RICE: And was that retrenchment?

HAASS: If you ask me, yes.

RICE: OK. I—you know, if not committing to stay indefinitely in these Middle East conflicts is retrenchment, then I’ll grant you that. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Yeah, well, then there’s ways—but there’s ways of staying at a cost that I would argue, you know, is warranted. And that’s part of the dialing of foreign policy. And it’s part of the problem with the language of forever conflicts. You know, we stay forever in Europe. We’ve stayed forever in Korea, at least up to now. And the question is, how do we design presences and activities—you know this—at a cost level that’s commensurate with the interests? And like everything else in life, it’s compared to what? That’s all. (Laughter.)

RICE: We should have set this up like this.

HAASS: No, but this is your book. I get enough time to hawk my books here. I have the home-team advantage when it comes to books.

Was that your biggest disagreement with the Obama administration? The reason I’m—in terms of Syria? I’m curious. I think it will be useful for people here. You’re in an administration. You’re in an organization. If you disagree, how do you handle it? How do you decide when you disagree with the boss, when you disagree with the consensus? I thought it would be useful for people to hear from you about how you play that hand.

RICE: Well, in my view, you shouldn’t be serving if you’re not willing to give your honest and best advice. And you probably shouldn’t be serving whomever you’re serving if he or she doesn’t want your honest and best advice. And fortunately, I’ve been privileged to serve secretaries of state in the younger part of my career and presidents who I think genuinely wanted and expected the best unvarnished advice from their advisors. At the end of the day they’d take their own counsel, make their own decision, and in my experience own their decisions. But I think—you know, when one finds themselves in a situation where the overt or subliminal message is you should dare not disagree, one, you’re not contributing and, two, you’re in a bad situation. And the outcomes are going to be of a lower quality, I fear.

HAASS: Do you have in your mind a sense—there’s disagreements and there’s disagreements about what the criteria would be that a disagreement reached a scale that you would have to resign?

RICE: Well, I think you know it when you see it. In my case, the Syria chemical weapons thing was not such a point for me, where I felt that I had to dissent. And dissent to the extent that I departed. And the reason for that is because I was essentially making a political judgment rather than a policy judgment. In that case I didn’t view myself as the political expert in the White House.

There was one case that I do write about in the book which is, you know, nobody would imagine, where I actually was prepared to resign. Did you get to this part about—(laughter)—

HAASS: Now, that is a—(laughs)—that’s a truly trick question. The answer is yes.

RICE: (Laughs.)

HAASS: (Laughs.) But I don’t want to—


HAASS: This is a spoiler alert. I don’t want to—(laughter)—I don’t want to ruin it for the rest of you.

RICE: I’ll let you and everybody else off the hook.

So this was in 2014, when we were wrestling with the Ebola epidemic. And as you may recall, it was—you know, it was a terrifying time when the disease was raging through West Africa. It had begun to spread through travel to the United States, to the United Kingdom, to a few other places.

Lawmakers here were freaking out and demanding the closure of the border. You know, governors were preventing people with dark skin who came from the African continent from coming through, you know, Newark Airport or what have you. And the pressure on President Obama to limit the prospect of Ebola getting to our shores was enormous.

And one of the proposals on the table was to—I’m going to oversimplify, but basically to restrict the ability of anybody who had traveled to the three affected countries to come to the United States. And not only would that have made it impossible for American health workers or American military personnel who we’d sent to support the logistics of the response effort to come back to the United States, but what it would have meant was that all legitimate travel from that region would have been cut off, which would have been the economic death knell for the countries of West Africa, plus it would have grossly stigmatized West Africans here in the United States, who are an important and vital community, not least in our health-care sector.

So when this issue came up, I argued very strenuously that we could not do this, that we had to find a better way to screen people coming in so that we didn’t prevent them—everybody from coming. And there was a point where I wasn’t sure how the president was going to decide. And I knew, and I said to myself at that moment, if he were to make the wrong decision, this would be a point where I would have to part company.

He did not make the wrong decision. As usual, he applied reason and science and resisted the political pressure. But it was for me a brief white-knuckle moment.

HAASS: One last question, then I’ll open it up, which has also to do with Africa, but it’s a different question. You were the assistant secretary years before. When you look at the demographic projections, an enormous share, percentage, of the demographic increases in the world over the next couple of decades are going to happen in Africa.

And the question is, what is—given that, plus climate change, plus poor governance in some places, what’s the optimistic case? Because when you look at Africa, what is it—how is it you avoid getting extremely worried? Or is it more conditional? Here’s what we have to do so the bad case doesn’t happen. What’s your take on it?

RICE: Well, I don’t think, just because it’s growing fast in terms of population, that, you know, it is necessarily likely to be a bad-case scenario. First of all, the optimistic case is it is a continent with enormous human capital and talent and a continent with enormous resources and capacity for growth. It's also—many of these countries are among the fastest-growing in the world.

HAASS: Yeah, sure.

RICE: And, you know, what Africa, in my judgment, needs most at the moment is younger and more effective and committed leadership. That’s the biggest change or challenge that we face. And, you know, Africa is, as you know—

HAASS: It’s hard to generalize.

RICE: —fifty-four countries, right? So you can’t paint it with a single brush. And I think there’s a lot of, in the long term, in my opinion, reason for optimism. But, you know, we do have forces working the other direction. We still have conflict. We have environmental pressures, including climate change.

But I also think there’s a great capacity for sustained growth and for growth that’s—you know, from which the benefits are broadly shared. So I’m not a pessimist in the long term at all. But I do think we’ve seen periods where the leadership deficit has been greater than others, and this is one of them.

HAASS: Let’s open it up then. Again, you know the rules. Raise your hand. Let us know who you are and where you’re hopefully employed. And if you say you’re a consultant, we’ll know the truth. (Laughter.) Keep it short. And Ambassador Rice, as you can tell, is succinct and to the point.

Yes, sir.

Q: Hello. My name is—

HAASS: Oh. (Laughs.) We’ll get you next.

Q: OK. My name is Paul. I’m an officer in the United States Army. It’s a pleasure to be here tonight. And thank you very much for your thoughts.

I’d like to pick up this thread on retrenchment or overreach. And really what seems to be at stake right now is when we would use military force and for what purpose. On the one hand, you talk in your book about norms, the responsibility to protect. On the other hand, maybe we’ve seen this administration, the use of force for strictly state interest.

So in your experiences, when should we or ought we use military force, and for what purpose?

RICE: Yeah, that’s like the textbook question to which I’ve discovered, over the course of my career, there is not a cookie-cutter answer. Obviously, when our direct interests and security are implicated and we need to, you know, act to defend ourselves or our people or our allies, that’s an obvious one. You know, and that can take, you know, the form of a state threat or a nonstate threat.

But the harder question, as I’ve seen in different forms throughout my career, comes in the form of what do you do in a humanitarian crisis? In what context should the United States, and/or the United States in partnership with others, intervene for a primarily humanitarian purpose?

And now we know that humanitarian purposes can range from combating disease to, you know, intervening to try to topple a dictator or, you know, proximate threats to civilians. And I think the answer in that case is each circumstance is different. And there isn’t, in my view, an easy doctrinal answer to that. And I actually don’t write about the responsibility to protect in those terms because, as much as it—(inaudible)—bit more complex.

And even though I’d like to be able to think that we have the capacity to act in a manner consistent with our values and principles and save human lives where we can, my conclusion is sometimes we can, at an acceptable risk and cost, and sometimes we can’t. And we have to look at each in its context on the merits and in the broader scheme of what else we are engaged in, because our capacity is not infinite. And not every situation, in my judgment, lends itself to what, in moral and humanitarian terms, we might feel compelled to do.

HAASS: You didn’t write about it in this book. Have you written about either Rwanda or Somalia, talking about—

RICE: I did write about it in this book.

HAASS: You did? (Laughter.)

RICE: Sorry. You busted yourself that time. (Laughter.) I write at length about Rwanda and Somalia as a—(laughter)—as kind of fundamentally informing my—

HAASS: OK. (Laughter.)

RICE: —development as a policymaker.


RICE: (Laughs.)


I did bust myself.

Q: Hi. I’m Omeed Malik. I’m not a consultant. I run a small firm called Farvahar Partners. Ambassador, thank you for your time.

I’m just curious. Do you have any sympathy at all for the current administration’s policies towards China?

RICE: You had to use the word “sympathy.” (Laughter.)

HAASS: Agreement.

RICE: There was a—let me—I think that we face a significant and urgent challenge from China, particularly in the economic realm and with respect to technology, and that, while past efforts in the Obama and Bush and prior administrations to deal with them have yielded some results, they have not tackled the fundamental problem, which is, you know, that China is poised, through its capacity and its policies, to be a major economic threat.

The question is, how do you deal with it? And so I agree that we have a challenge. I think we’re dealing with it almost altogether wrong. To me, for the United States to be maximally effective in pressing our economic agenda with China, we ought to be doing it in lockstep with our allies and partners—the Europeans, others in Asia, Canada.

HAASS: Would that mean being in TPP?

RICE: Absolutely. And instead we have isolated ourselves, not only by withdrawing from TPP, but by starting trade conflicts with our close allies, like Canada on steel and aluminum, and Europe in much the same vein, so that, rather than bringing these countries to join us in a concerted effort to compel China to change the rules in a direction that we think is fair and levels the playing field, we’re fighting this basically with one hand tied behind our backs. And we’ve, I think, way overemphasized tariffs as a tool to our own detriment, as well the detriment of the global economy.

And I’m very much concerned that political pressure is going to mount on the president, now that we’ve gone down this road in a fashion that I wouldn’t have recommended, but we’re way down it, to cut a deal that, you know, may boost exports of agricultural products and maybe some manufactured goods, but doesn’t get to the fundamental concerns that we have about China’s, you know, structural threats.

And then, on the security side, I don’t think we have approached that appropriately either. You know, there used to be a time when we had a security track and an economic track, and we worked pretty hard to keep those parallel rather than intersecting. And now, you know, for example, we offered to trade off concerns about Huawei, which are essentially security concerns, for some benefit on the economic side.

You know, we talked about, you know, an approach to North Korea that might be dictated by our economic interests. To me that’s completely backwards and has left us, you know, without, you know, coordination in an effective way with China on these critical security issues like North Korea.

We’ve jettisoned the cooperation agenda altogether, where we were actually getting important things done on climate, on nonproliferation, on nuclear security, you name it—development—and we have, you know, seemingly underemphasized other aspects of our security concerns in the cyber realm, in South China Sea, et cetera, et cetera.

HAASS: Let me give you a backwards-looking question about China. The argument is that we were right to bring China into the WTO when we did near, what, seventeen, eighteen years ago, plus or minus—but that along the way, both forty-three’s administration as well as the Obama administration didn’t monitor it closely enough and we didn’t adjust the terms. So now the whole idea of integration of China is somewhat discredited, but the problem was not with integrating China but with how we went about it, that we weren’t tough enough as China began to grow and evolve.

RICE: I think there’s an argument for that. I don’t think we were wrong to try to integrate them. And I also don’t think, by the way, that, you know, there’s going to be—that we can effect a clean, great decoupling either. I think that, you know, that’s smoking dope. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Which is—I don’t even know if it’s legal or not in this state. (Laughter.)

But yes, ma’am. Microphone’s coming toward you.

Q: Hi. Casey Deering. I’m with the Department of Energy. Thanks for the conversation tonight.

I wondered if you had any thoughts in particular with the current rhetoric that’s been going on about how we can improve public trust or enhance public trust in civil servants, especially those of us who work in national security and in the foreign-policy arenas, with a lot of the rhetoric around deep states and conspiracy theories.

RICE: I’m really appreciative of that question. The first thing we can do is to stop denigrating them. And, I mean, I—this—there’s no issue of the moment about which I’m more angry than the demonization of our civil servants, Foreign Service officers, career military. I mean, it’s literally everybody in law enforcement, in the intelligence community, the national-security community, State Department, that have been painted with a single brush because they are patriots, because they are professionals, because they actually take seriously their oath to the Constitution.

HAASS: But they have acquitted—I mean, the Bill Taylors of the world, they’ve acquitted themselves sensationally well.

RICE: Extremely well. And the answer—the other side of the answer to your question is, on the one hand, we need our leadership to stop degrading and denigrating people, and frankly, aided and abetted by half the Congress. And we need these patriots who have come forward to get the visibility that they didn’t ask for but now deserve to show the American people just the quality and the integrity of the people who are working for very little money every day out of commitment to country to serve.

So I think, in a(n) ironic and backhanded way, we’re going to have a moment where these extraordinary civil servants, and Foreign Service officers, and military officers are going to have an opportunity to show the country and the world the extraordinary quality of the people who do the jobs like yours every day.

HAASS: Someone from this side of the room— yes, sir.

Q: My name is Olivier Kamanda and I work at Facebook.

About a year or so ago on a different social media channel, a former Obama communications director submitted a tweet, said—excuse me—who wants to run for Senate in Maine? There will be an army of supporters with you. Eleven minutes later you wrote: Me. So the question is, when? (Laughter.)

RICE: And the short answer is, not now. (Laughter.) So do you we have—can I just tell this funny story behind this? (Laughter.) It will take a couple minutes.

So this whole thing was—I’m walking in the Phoenix Airport, I’m getting on a plane. And as I’m walking through the terminal to get to my gate, there’s Susan Collins on the television screen giving her speech about how—you know, after an hour—she’s going to support Kavanaugh.

And I get to my gate, and I’m actually on the phone with my husband asking—because I wasn’t able to stop and listen to what was going on—what did she say? And he said, she’s going to vote for him. And I said, damn it; I’m going to run against her in Maine. And my husband says, no, you’re not; hell, no. (Laughter.) And I just laughed and said—because I wasn’t being really serious.

So then I’m standing in line—this is one of those Southwest flights where you line up, and I’m number one in the whole aircraft—never before or since—(laughter). And I’m on my phone, and I’m reading Twitter trying to, you know, see what’s going on and reaction to Collins, and I see this tweet from my friend and colleague, Jen Psaki. And something happened as I’m reading it, and I just—(laughter)—hit the M button and then the E button—(laughter)—and SEND. And then I—you know, I wasn’t really—I was not very serious.

I get on the plane and my phone starts blowing up—(laughter). First it’s my husband saying—(laughter)—

HAASS: The record will show you said nothing to us. (Laughter.)

RICE: (Laughs.) And then—and then it’s my press aide calling me saying my phone—her phone is blowing up, what the hell is going on? And I realize I’m about to get on a cross-country flight. If I don’t say something between now and when I get off this plane, it’s going to be crazy.

So then I write a follow-up tweet saying, you know, well, I was really disappointed in Collins, and I’m going to think very seriously about it, and—you know, Brett Kavanaugh is a bummer, and you know, boom. (Laughter.) And then I get on the plane.

And so when I land there’s still some hullaballoo that I’ve created, but it was at a level reduced from had I not sent the second tweet. And then I actually really thought about it because I figured I’d, you know, opened my big mouth; I’d better give that some real consideration.

And we haven’t talked about my background, but Maine is a place where I have deep ties going back over a hundred years. We have a home there that, you know, we have had for a long time. It’s where my mother’s family is from. And it’s not a thought that I hadn’t considered previously. It just came out spontaneously.

But the bottom line is we have a daughter who is a junior in high school who devoted eight years of her life to a mother who was working pretty hard: in New York when I was at the U.N. when my family stayed in Washington, and then when I came back to Washington to be under the same roof, working pretty crazy hours. And this was not the time for me to again uproot her or absent myself to move to Maine to run for office.

So the answer is not now. I don’t know if it will—if it will ever be yes. I don’t know if it will be Maine. I don’t know if it will be the Senate or if it will just be that I get to continue to maintain my freedom and tweet at will. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Thank you for that definitive answer. (Laughter.)

Yes, Ma’am—all the way in the back, over here.

Q: Hello, Ambassador Rice. I’m Latoya Peterson, co-founder of Glow Up Games.

One of the questions I had for you is building on the earlier question about China, which is about the perception of soft power and how America is being perceived in the world. In the world that I come from, in gaming, there was recently a point where an e-sports player was penalized for speaking out in favor of the democratic protests in Hong Kong. And one of the things that was so chilling and that a lot of the media picked on was that this was a comment made in America, but they were being punished so severely because of the economic investment that China has in the gaming industry.

So it’s interesting to me to see how an ideal like democracy wouldn’t be defended on our own soil, and so what have you seen in the changes, I think globally, around the perception of American ideals like democracy?

HAASS: First of all, before you answer, you’ll also get a chance to ask a version of that question because Adam Silver is going to be here in the not-too-distant future and will be talking about how the NBA handled the Houston Rockets. And again, the issue—and we’ll actually—also we’re planning an event at some point about American films and the question of how—their freedom for content; if you want to market in China, what sort of compromise—so I think this is a—this is a big and growing issue. I didn’t mean to—

RICE: No, no, it’s good to plug Adam Silver.

You know, I think this is going to be a bigger and bigger challenge, particularly for American companies, but also for American policy. And my own view is that, you know, companies need to be aware of the world in which they are playing; that, you know, China is becoming more and more aggressive and assertive in this whole realm in trying to shut down anything that they don’t like with respect to speech and democratization, human rights. They are being extremely extraterritorial about it. And they are going to punish people.

And my view is that, you know, the companies that are going to succeed—if they are American-based companies or originally American companies—are the ones that aren’t going to take that crap, that aren’t going to be intimidated.

Now there are going to be some that feel that they have to compromise, and I think that was interestingly the challenge that the NBA wrestled with, and went back and forth, and finally landed on, you know, the right place. But—

HAASS: At some potential financial cost to the NBA.

RICE: Yeah, and they’ve eaten it. Now if they were to go, you know, try to tack back in the other direction, they’d risk, frankly, alienating their American customers.

HAASS: And their players.

RICE: So I think they figured it out.

But, you know, I think before you end up in the kind of challenge that the NBA had, you know, you need to be mindful—big companies and small companies—about how this is going to play out. And, you know, for some of our tech companies that are, you know, prepared to make arrangements or cut deals with China that enable them to have some access on terms that, you know, they would never get away with back here, and then, you know, have hesitations about partnering with the U.S. government on certain things, I think there is a certain irony there that I think needs some careful consideration.

You know, there are—we are increasingly facing a world where China is compelling companies to embrace a national identity at a time when, you know, we’d been moving away from that. And as far as I’m concerned, you know, the American companies need to know who they are, so—

HAASS: Since you mentioned China, a real—imagine you were still in your old job. You had the events of the last few days, weeks, and months in Hong Kong. What would you be doing now to try to influence the trajectory of events?

You know, I was at the White House during Tiananmen—during that time and how we tried to balance it then, tried to preserve a relationship, at the same time stand for human rights.

How do you—how would you handle this?

RICE: I mean, that’s what I’d be trying to do right now, but with the emphasis on standing for human rights. And we’re not. We’re silent or we’re worse. We’ve basically said—if the reporting is to be believed—to Xi Jinping that we’re going to keep quiet on Hong Kong and largely, from the White House, at least, we have.

I think that’s a grave mistake and, you know, in many ways we’re paying the price because of—a perception that the Chinese are stoking is that we’re behind all this, which of course we’re not. But we’re not actually speaking out and standing up in a way that, under almost any prior administration, I think we would have in defense of free, fundamental values and principles that are really not ambiguous at this point.

HAASS: I think I know the answer to this question, but if you were still in your old job, would Mr. Erdogan have had the experience he had yesterday?

RICE: No. How about you?

HAASS: No. (Laughter.) See? We can agree.

Yes, Ma’am, on the front row.

RICE: More often than not, I would think.

HAASS: Yeah, probably more often—we’re going to over, I’m going to warn—we have our—I think the schedule is we’ve got this meeting, and then we’ve got a half-hour break, and then we’ve got the Middle East meeting.

Do you have a few minutes? Can we—

RICE: I got about five or ten minutes.

HAASS: OK, we’re going to go to 6:05. We’re going to take five minutes of your social time because having Susan Rice here is too good of an opportunity to miss.

Q: Thank you, and what a great opportunity. Thank you, Ambassador.

You’ve talked—you oversaw—

HAASS: Please introduce yourself.

Q: My name is Vanessa Fajans-Turner. I work with the Earth Institute at Columbia.

You oversaw a great period of action on climate change as a national security threat, oversaw a report that identified it as such, and increasingly we’re seeing opportunities and moments when international intervention in the right to protect could feasibly apply to things like fires in the Amazon, et cetera.

Was there ever a moment during your time when there was some sort of conversation about potential intervention, or engagement, or going against national interests because of climate or environmental issues?

RICE: Not that I can think of in those narrow terms, but I think, you know, as we wrote in that report—and it was sort of a theme during the Obama administration—we saw climate change as a national security threat, in part because it was a force multiplier for all these other threats: for droughts, for floods, for famine, for conflict, and displacement.

And so, you know, we did find ourselves looking at questions of intervention for those effects—second-order effects of climate change, you know. When you—you know, when you intervene following a massive cyclone in the Philippines, for example—which we did—or in the Clinton administration in Mozambique to deal with the consequences of flooding—but no, not something as narrowly defined as you put it, but I could see it becoming a real question in the future.

HAASS: Actually, I ended up writing a piece arguing that Brazil had an obligation because the Amazon was of significance not just to Brazil—

RICE: Of course.

HAASS: —but to the entire world, so—

RICE: But try telling Bolsonaro that.

HAASS: I did. I got a protest in this job from the Brazilian government.

RICE: Did you really?

HAASS: Yeah. (Laughter.) It’s one of the few protests I’ve gotten in my private capacity.

Yes, sir.

RICE: Well, that’s interesting, though, that they—they come—Brazil is coming to you—not China—Brazil is coming to you to protest a public statement you make as a(n) independent commentator.

HAASS: Yes, Ma’am. (Laughter.)

RICE: I don’t think that would have happened years ago.

Go ahead.

Q: Hi. Jay Hallen from Capitol One. Thank you for being here.

I wanted to ask you about, in 2016, if you could walk us through when and how you learned about Russian interference in the election, and the discussions and options that you and President Obama discussed.

RICE: Yeah. I walk you through that in depth in the book—(laughter)—

HAASS: Yeah, it was really one of the best parts, so—(laughter)—

RICE: Well done.

So I really—I do spend time on that, and I’d commend it to you because it’s not something I can give you a two-second answer on.

We learned about it in the starkest terms, as I write, in early August of 2016 when what we learned was that what we were seeing had been directed from the highest levels of the Russian government. And then I talk through all of the considerations we had in trying to prepare to retaliate, harden our systems, provide adequate information to the American public, et cetera, et cetera. And I also talk about, you know, where I think we got it right and where I think we missed a few things. So I’d encourage you to read it.

HAASS: Based on the latter where we think—you think we missed a few things, what would you now be signaling the Russians or anybody else? Here we are, we’re literally fifty, fifty-one weeks away from our next election. What would you be signaling now? Is there—obviously we take all sorts of steps to protect ourselves, make ourselves less vulnerable. We can never be invulnerable.

What do we do—what tools do we have for deterrence?

RICE: Well, I think we—and I write about this—we obviously still do have economic—

HAASS: Sanctions.

RICE: —tools for deterrence which we employed, at the end of the Obama administration—and I argue that in retrospect I wish we had employed even tougher economic penalties. We weighed the question of whether to impose sweeping sectoral sanctions on Russia, going after the energy sector, other sectors. And we held back from that for a couple of reasons, even as we did impose some significant sanctions. One was because they would have had a(n) immediate adverse effect on our European partners, almost commensurate with the negative impact it would have had on the Russians. And at the time we were trying to maintain European unity around the Ukrainian-based sanctions, which were not by any means a guaranteed outcome. The Europeans were—some in Europe were getting nervous about maintaining sanctions on Ukraine.

And the other concern we had, as I wrote, is that we had an incoming administration that was arguably already signaling to the Russians that they were going to take care of the sanctions, so to speak—undo them or roll them back. And that also played into our thinking.

But I think that is a tool that we have underutilized still to this day with Congress and the administration not employing the economic tools that are at our disposal, so I think we could make them feel more pain, but the other thing we can do is more on our side. As I write in the last chapter of the book, I truly believe that our domestic political divisions are at the moment our greatest national security vulnerability, and for many reasons, but the most obvious being that our adversaries, including Russia, are doing their utmost to increase and exacerbate those divisions, and can discredit democracy, weaken us as a global rival and player without ever firing a bullet if indeed they take their efforts to the ultimate extreme, which is what they are trying to do every day on social media by playing in the most raw of our political fault lines, whether it’s on race, or immigration, or guns, or what have you.

And so I think there’s more to this than I can say in the time we have, but there is a great deal we need to do, all of which can’t be accomplished before next election cycle, but to be far more witting of what is being done to us, and how we make it feasible for adversaries to do that and to take the kinds of steps that are in our capacity to take to begin to address and to heal those divisions.

HAASS: I want to thank Susan for three things: one is for being with us tonight and getting us off to such a start—the Term Member Conference—a former term member, who better? Secondly, for her many years of public service. It is a—it’s the best thing you can ever do, but it’s also the most demanding thing in many ways that you can ever do.

RICE: It is the best thing. I would highly, highly recommend it.

HAASS: Highly recommend it. Find a way to do it. You will benefit from it as will your country. And then thirdly, I recommend that all of us read the book. (Laughs.) (Applause.)

RICE: One point of seriousness on that. I do hope you will read it, and not least because many of you are at stages in your careers where I was during a large portion of this book. You know, I made the transition—I was young as an assistant secretary, I was young as an NSC staffer—I started at twenty-eight on the NSC—and then at thirty-two I was an assistant secretary. And then at thirty-six I had exhausted my runway in the area of expertise that I had worked in which was Africa, so then what do you do?

And, you know, the insights I try to share as to how I managed that challenge may be relevant to a number of you.

HAASS: The book I should say is on sale. The premium is not excessive—(laughs)—but again, thank you for doing this.

RICE: Thank you, guys.

HAASS: Good luck with it, and—

RICE: Thank you.

HAASS: —you’ve got a short break, and then you come back at 6:30 for a truly depressing session on the Middle East. (Laughter, applause.)


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