Power and purpose

Susan Rice: ‘The world is looking at the United States and wondering where we have gone’

The former national security adviser said ‘tweets on the fly’ from a White House that ignores important global issues is making the world a riskier place.

Susan Rice, National Security Advisor 2013 to 2017 and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013, at The 2019 Women In The World Summit in New York City, April 11, 2019.

Susan Rice is sounding the alarm.

The former United States national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations went straight to today’s news in a conversation with New York Times best-selling author Alyssa Mastromonaco at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit on Thursday.

“It’s a rare day when you wake up and there are two good news stories right off the bat,” Rice said, pointing to Julian Assange being removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and likely soon facing U.S. justice, and Omar al-Bashir being removed from power in Sudan. (Rice, however, expressed concern that the militia has taken over: “A coup to replace a coup is not inherently a good thing.”)

But on to the less-good news. As Mastromonaco asked, to knowing laughs from the crowd, “Do you think the current administration knows exactly what they’re doing?”

Beyond the many issues surfacing around the world, Rice said, “I worry about the quality of decision-making. There are reasons why in the national security world there are processes and committees spending hours carefully considering issues and making thoughtful recommendations… The process is broken.” She noted that extensive meetings with weeks of preparatory work are being replaced by tweets on the fly.

We’re lucky, she said, that very few outside crises have hit this presidency. “Most of the challenges this administration has faced have been challenges of its own creation,” she said. “When and if a major crisis hits, I worry the system and processes and muscle memory isn’t in place for the type of decision-making we need.”

Two years into the presidency, cabinet secretary positions are still not permanently filled, and the Department of Homeland Security, which touches everything from cybersecurity to terrorism to the border, isn’t fully staffed. “Half the cabinet it seems is vacant or with acting individuals who don’t have security of position or the stature to be as effective as we need them to be,” said Rice. “There seems to be a deliberate disinterest in having human beings run the government.”

There are also global issues lacking priority: “There are whole swaths of the world that seem to be not worthy of the time and attention of senior American officials,” said Rice. “Frankly, that is not the luxury the U.S. has when you aim to be the global leader.” She pointed to the recent flood in Mozambique, and recalled the time in 2000 when then-President Bill Clinton deployed helicopters to pick up victims off the roofs of huts in southern Africa because the U.S. government decided it was a priority.

And with the world’s second-worst Ebola outbreak now raging in eastern Congo, she noted how President Barack Obama’s leadership in 2014 rallied the world to contain an epidemic and limit the loss of life. “All these issues seem to be falling off the table or not even hit the table,” said Rice. “It’s why the rest of the world is looking at the United States and wondering where we have gone.”

On veteran intelligence officials like John Brennan and James Clapper speaking out against the current administration, Rice said, “They are right to speak out. If anything is doing a disservice to our intelligence committee, it’s having a commander-in-chief who denigrates them on a daily basis.”

The world has long looked to the U.S. to lead with respect to our values, but, Rice said, “We are now an exporter of instability and that’s a horrible thing to have to say.”

She urged the audience to not lose sight of core issues, like the recent detente between India and Pakistan, or the fact that there are still 15,000 American men and women on the ground in Afghanistan. “When we’re constantly being bombarded by the insanity of the day blowing up our phone, literally, it’s very hard to look beyond our immediate borders and the most hot crises around the world.”

Mastromonaco, who also worked in the Obama administration, noted the standards they were held to in the prior White House regarding security, to which Rice responded, “Three times a week at least, I wake up and say, ‘Can you imagine if we had done this?’”

The audience loudly applauded the idea of Rice running for Susan Collins’s Senate seat in Maine in 2020. So will she run?

“Like a lot of people, I was deeply disappointed when Susan Collins decided to vote for Brett Kavanaugh,” Rice said. “It felt like a betrayal, frankly, to all women.” Rice’s family has deep roots in Maine that go back over 100 years — but ultimately, the timing to run isn’t right as Rice’s daughter is heading into her junior year of high school in Washington. “I don’t rule out running for office in the future in Maine or beyond, but after all my family has done to support me and as much as they have sacrificed to enable me to serve, I’ve got to put them first.”

Of course she’ll throw her weight and expertise behind other candidates in the upcoming election: “We’re going to support the Democratic nominee and bust our behinds to help the right people win in 2020.”

Judging by the enthusiastic noise from the crowd, when Rice is ready, her boosters will be there, too.

Additional reporting by Vittoria Elliott.

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