In interview, Susan Rice explains role in WH decision-making; ‘People know not to mess with me’

Charles C. Johnson | Contributor

In a book written by a lifelong friend of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, the diplomat who may soon be a Secretary of State nominee explained that she routinely confers with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before making decisions.

She also explained that “people know not to mess with me. And if they haven’t learned, and they try, then they will learn.”

The interview provides new insight into the communications and briefing procedures likely employed by the White House after the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Rice has said that during her now infamous Sept. 16 appearances on five Sunday television shows that she received and adhered to talking points from members of the intelligence community.

During those appearances, she insisted that the Benghazi attack was the result of a spontaneous street protest started over discontent with a YouTube video, despite reportedly knowing at the time that al-Qaida may have been involved in the attack.

In the 2012 book interview, Rice described her role as an active member of the president’s decision-making team.

“One of the most important ways I make a difference is being part of making the decisions that determine how we approach key issues or challenges in the world, getting to execute them, and doing it in a way that tries to build consensus rather than creating confrontation,” Rice told fellow Rhodes Scholar and long-time friend Bonnie St. John in “How Great Women Lead: A Mother-Daughter Adventure Into the Lives of Women Shaping the World.”

“Here at the UN I have some freedom to figure out how I’m going to do things, not just take orders. I participate in the decisions about what we’re going to do. That’s one of the really gratifying things about this job.”

St. John and Rice have been friends since 1986. The book was published in April 2012, and quotes Rice extensively about how decisions are made, how she makes them, and about her time as U.N. ambassador.

Under pressure from Republican senators for answers to why Rice delivered false information to the American public, President Obama pushed back during a November 18 press conference, arguing that she had “nothing to do with Benghazi.”

That claim was startling given Rice’s role as the top Obama surrogate tasked with explaining the attack’s origins. And Rice’s book interview revealed that she works closely with both the White House and State Department to craft strategies when national interests are at stake.

“We normally get our instructions on various issues from the State Department or the White House,” she wrote, describing an unnamed situation in 2011 “where it wasn’t a big deal that we had to litigate at the highest levels.”

“In that instance, I would be at the table in Washington and argue my point of view. The president or somebody else would make a decision and we’d have to implement it,”” Rice explained. “This was not of … a [high] degree of profile, but it had the potential to poison the atmosphere here at the UN and create some resentment toward us that I figured we didn’t need to create.”

Rice continued, exploring the tactical toolbox she used to manipulate the decision-making process and get her way.

“The original instruction was to go kill this proposal outright with blunt force,” she recalled in the interview. “My team in Washington got me a modified instruction that didn’t soften it as much as I wanted. It basically said, kill it with a bunch of questions. But these are questions that I had already delayed it with six weeks ago, so to come back with that tactic wasn’t going to work, either. I decided to do it a different way, toward the same end. My view is that, if we can kill it without a lot of cost, that’s fine.”

“I created an environment in which we may not have to kill the proposal overtly ourselves, and the thing can collapse of its own weight. … It’s fun to figure out not just what it is we have to do, but also to have some opportunity to carry out how we do it.”

Rice also discussed in the interview her professional demeanor and management style.

“I’m straightforward,” she said. “People know when they talk to me that what they see is what they get — that I’m not playing games. I think that’s very important. They see me as pretty open and collaborative, tough when I need to be, but not confrontational for my own sake. I think people know not to mess with me. And if they haven’t learned, and they try, then they will learn.”

Rice confessed that one weakness persisted from her days as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs: a lack of patience.

“Patience still isn’t my strong suit. I began recognizing that the best way to get from A to Z was not always in a straight line … sometimes you need to tack and adjust. Sometimes you have to slow down to bring as many people along as possible,” she recalled.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have pledged to oppose Rice’s nomination if Obama puts her forward to be Secretary of State.

“If I wanted to be secretary of state, I would not go on television and perform what was essentially a political role,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, ranking member on the Homeland Security committee.

But Rice may be up for the fight.

“[T]here’s nothing about my work or my job that I inherently fear,” she said in the book. “I never have. I worry about some of the issues we’re dealing with, which are really challenging, but I’m not afraid.”

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