Susan Rice — President Barack Obama’s national security advisor — has one of the world’s hardest jobs, but on Tuesday, she may have faced the toughest challenge of her three-year tenure: a public interview with her brother, John Rice ’88 — Yale Corporation fellow and CEO of Management Leadership for Tomorrow.
“We’re close, and I asked her questions that I hadn’t even asked before,” John Rice told the News.
The light-hearted “fireside chat” at the Yale Law School delved into former U.N. Ambassador Rice’s personal and professional experiences, particularly while working in the Obama administration. As a guest speaker for the Chubb Fellowship — an endowment established in the late 1940s to have speakers publicly address topics of special interest — Susan Rice focused her remarks on foreign policy, though the sibling duo often veered into personal anecdotes.
“Family comes first, even in a job like mine,” Susan Rice said.
Susan Rice opened the talk with a story about how throwing out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals game was “the most stressful thing” she ever did. The former ambassador spent weeks practicing with the Secret Service — in part, because she dreaded the inevitable “Fox News reruns” if she failed. But, despite the light atmosphere, she did not shy away from discussing her personal struggles. She cited the aftermath of the 2012 raid on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi as a troubling time, not just for her but also for her family. Her daughter had to come to grips with the brute realities of partisan politics at perhaps too young an age, while her mother had to anxiously watch her daughter’s struggles broadcast on the national stage, Susan Rice said.
Susan Rice, however, said she persevered through the aftermath of Benghazi and other challenges because she claims she has “always known who I am, and am not.”
“When I see a painful critique, I am able to distinguish what I know about myself from what is being said about me,” Susan Rice said.
Susan Rice denied the existence of a “Rice or Obama Doctrine” — a uniform political doctrine followed by Obama’s administration in every situation. Susan Rice said every situation is different, so their solutions will be too.
But Susan Rice did insist that one concern remained constant among all situations: the question of “What is in the best interest of the United States?” Yet, as simple as this guiding interest may seem, Susan Rice said it is complicated by an equally pressing concern to “not just determine the effect of actions, but also what is effective in action.”
On Syria, Susan Rice was unequivocal, stating that the nation is faced with nothing but bad options that can cascade into worse ones. The biggest obstacle to peace, she said, was the “mash-up of belligerents” fighting with competing interests and abilities. Susan Rice emphasized how at its core, the Syrian Civil War is a referendum on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s right to rule. Although the United States is determined to oust the ruler, the opposition’s fragmentation and ISIS’ looming influence, coupled with America’s reluctance to unnecessarily deploy troops, make finding a solution difficult, she said. Yet, Susan Rice remained hopeful that peace in Syria could still be reached.
“Syria can only get solved through a political solution with mutual consent,” she said.
Susan Rice also took pride in the Obama administration’s achievements. As national security adviser, the nation’s economic recovery, de-escalation in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebalancing in Asia and strengthening of nuclear security — particularly in Iran — all stood out for her as highlights of the past seven years. Even so, Susan Rice saw more room for improvement on long-term issues like climate change. The former U.N. ambassador was optimistic that real change could be affected this December at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Both Susan Rice and her brother spoke of attaining equal opportunity as a pressing issue. John Rice’s nonprofit organization, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, focuses on issues such as equipping underrepresented minorities with skills, coaching and relationships needed to become leaders in the corporate, nonprofit and entrepreneurial sectors.
“There is more talent out there than is able to rise to the surface,” Susan Rice said. “We can do better. We have to do better.”
Susan Rice also cited improving early access to education and providing young people with the support they need as measures that could help the United States “maximize its social, cultural and intellectual strengths.”
To some students interviewed, Susan Rice’s personal forays were the best part of the talk.
“So often, we forget that politicians have a personal side,” Azeezat Adeleke ’17 said. “After Benghazi, Rice was attacked like she was an institution, not a person.”
Tyler Blackmon ’16, a staff columnist for the News, said he appreciated the talk’s unique format, but added that he wished there had been more policy discussion and fewer personal stories.
Following her talk in the Law School Auditorium, John and Susan Rice spoke to a smaller audience at a private reception. Then, Susan Rice talked to students at a small dinner in the Timothy Dwight Dining Hall.
Timothy Dwight College runs the Chubb Fellowship and TD Master Mary Lui directs all Chubb-related events with the help of Associate Chubb Fellow Susan Wigler.