Susan Rice: Team Player

Susan Rice, who President Barack Obama today named his new national security advisor, will do well in her new role. I am confident of that. She will of course face challenges, often on problems where there are no good or easy answers—starting with Syria and Iran. She will be helping a president who is leading a war-weary nation with a nearly trillion dollar deficit and numerous domestic woes that compete for his time and attention, as well as the country’s resources. And the partisan problems in Washington won’t make life any easier.

But in taking on all of this, Rice has a number of strengths. Some are well known—her experience at the United Nations, her expertise on handling Iran and North Korea sanctions issues there (and thus working with Europeans, Russians, Chinese, and others on such problems), her previous service in government. To me, however, one set of strengths stands out as a major and often underappreciated aspect of Rice’s character and personality—the ability to build and lead a team.

I saw this firsthand when Susan led then-Senator Obama’s foreign policy team in 2007 and 2008 during his first campaign for president. I was her colleague down the hall—but also a Hillary supporter, as well as a supporter of the surge in Iraq. So we were not by any stretch of the imagination aligned on all matters.

And that’s one of the reasons my admiration for her efforts grew by the month over that period. Even though Hillary was the juggernaut within the Democratic Party, and the presumed nominee, Susan helped create a network of top-notch foreign policy analysts and advisors to help a freshman senator prepare himself for a severe set of tests in taking on the former first lady and New York senator. Indeed, rather than try to run away from foreign policy, Obama decided to try to make it one of his strengths. I did not agree with him (or with Susan) on every issue, starting with the surge in Iraq. But they were very well prepared, well-disciplined in their messaging, and generally cogent in their worldview. After defeating Hillary, they then took on and defeated a great American, war hero, and extremely impressive senator, John McCain, in the general election.

Much, if not most, of the credit for the Obama operation must go to the candidate himself. But there is no doubt that Rice ran a very tight ship on foreign policy. And while there were some elbows thrown now and again, they were generally within the rules of spirited and vigorous debate. There was little to no impugning of any opponent’s character or motivations—only sharp disagreement on a variety of policy issues. The approach of the Obama team was generally fair and serious.

Because the national security advisor position is largely about making a team serve the president—and the nation—thoughtfully and well, I believe Rice is generally well suited to the task ahead. To be sure, the administration will have to be willing to shake up its previous assumptions and conventional wisdom on issues like Syria, where current policy is largely failing. And challenges such as these will no doubt test Rice in other ways. But her preparedness on a huge range of issues, as well as her ability to coordinate, motivate, and discipline a large and often unruly set of bureaucratic actors, is in my mind quite solid.

I wish Susan well, and I am glad Obama made a choice to name a national security advisor who is well-placed not just to serve the president, but to serve the interests of America as well.