In commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Susan Rice, former United Nations Ambassador and former National Security Advisor, recalled her favorite quote by Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The quote was woven along the edge of the Oval Office carpet at the beginning of the Obama Administration. Ambassador Rice said the quote was the guiding principle of her life in public service.
“Nobody is going to do the hard bending, if not you and me,” Rice said.
On Monday afternoon, hundreds of students and community members including Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., filled Annenberg Auditorium and dozens packed into overflow rooms in the Ford School of Public Policy to hear Rice.
Rice has spent decades in public service, most recently serving as the U.S. National Security Advisor from 2013 to 2017 and U.S. Permanent Representative in the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 in the Obama administration.
The event was a collaboration between the MLK Jr. Symposium and the Weiser Diplomacy Center. Michael S. Barr, dean of the Public Policy School and a former colleague of Rice, moderated the conversation and the student Q&A session. During the talk, Rice discussed her foreign policy decisions, the 2012 Benghazi scandal and the challenges she faced as a woman of color.
Rice began by discussing the title of her new book, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.” Rice credited tough love as an aspect of leadership that has encompassed her personal and professional life.
“Tough love means loving fiercely but not uncritically. It means that when you care deeply about somebody,” Rice said. “You care enough to give them your unvarnished truth. And do it from the vantage point of someone who has their best interests at heart. (It’s) how I’ve tried to serve our country. I love this country passionately, but I believe we have and do and will make mistakes. And we need to acknowledge them and learn from them.”
She said she achieved many high-profile positions relatively young. This caused a unique set of problems, particularly when learning to lead teams with coworkers and subordinates who were decades older than her. She noted that women and people of color have to make sure to work twice as hard, especially in these positions.
“(You’ve got to be) hardworking and prepared. You know, you can’t mail it in,” Rice said. “You’ve gotta be as good as you possibly can be and take the time to be maximally prepared. I think that’s important for women and for people of color because you’re not going to be cut any slack. You’re not going to necessarily get a second chance to make a first impression.”
Rice was also candid when sharing the obstacles she faced as a young woman of color serving with predominantly white, male diplomats. She acknowledged that it was incredibly difficult to lead a team when many of them believed she didn’t deserve the job.
“When I got to the State Department at 32, I was an African-American woman who just had a baby, a breastfeeding mother,” Rice said. “And so figuring out in that context, you know, how to lead and manage teams when, frankly, many of them thought I didn’t deserve to be in a job I was in, was a real challenge.”
Rice said her motivation to write her memoir stemmed from the accusations during and after the attack on two United States government facilities in Benghazi in 2012, which she acknowledges as a pivotal moment in her life. She detailed making the decision to go on national television in place of then-Secretary Clinton, who had turned down the offer, and how she inadvertently gave false information due to incorrect intelligence.
“I (went on) the Sunday shows and I used the information that had been provided to me by our intelligence community,” Rice said. “The talking points … conveyed our current best knowledge of what had happened, and I stuck to them faithfully.”
Rice then detailed that after her appearances on national television, the intelligence community released a public statement that the information they had given to public officials, including Rice, contained inaccuracies.
“After all the investigations and reviews of the information, the talking points I used turned out to be wrong in one critical respect, there was no demonstration outside our diplomatic compound in Benghazi,” Rice said. “But the other aspects, over time, ended up holding up.”
In the aftermath of the scandal, Rice said she was attacked by several Congressmen who criticized her competence and intelligence. These continued attacks after the 2012 election led her to remove herself from consideration as Secretary of State for President Obama’s second term.
“I was thinking about the President’s second term agenda; the things he had on his plate to do,” Rice said. “Even if I was likely to be confirmed … it would have been a long, ugly, costly battle that would have distracted from what we needed to get done. And so I made the judgment that I should withdraw my name.”
Yet Rice was also frustrated by mischaracterizations from both sides of the media. She said she remembers either being characterized as a liar and villain or on the other extreme, a hero. She said as a public servant representing the United States, speaking on behalf of the country and the President, she could not speak on her own behalf.
“Part of why I wanted to write ‘Tough Love’ was not only to share what I have learned through my family, my growing up, and my service in government. But also to do what my father had always taught us which is: ‘define yourself for yourself,’” Rice said.
Rice’s advice appealed to students who found it refreshing to hear about leadership experiences in a candid manner. Public Policy senior Lillie Heyman said Rice’s call to action was particularly impactful.
“She spoke on how we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and how we all have to enter the arena at this point in order to have the government working for us,” Heyman said.
Public Policy graduate student Aloka Narayanan reiterated Heyman’s comments, adding that she appreciated the parallels from another MLK Jr. symposium event earlier in the day.
“I went to the Angela Davis talk this morning and I appreciate the thread that both of them continued on civic participation,” Narayanan said.
Rice continues to actively participate in foreign policy and has recently criticized the Trump Administration for unintended consequences of killing former Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani. Rice told The Daily in an interview following the event that there are many forms of retaliation the Iran military could take.
“I think given the regime’s long history, we should be prepared for less overt and sustained efforts to retaliate,” Rice said. “That could take the form of proxy attacks, could take the form of cyber-attacks, or even terrorist attacks against American targets in the region or beyond. We may not immediately recognize their origin and we may not immediately attribute it to retaliation for the Soleimani killing but that’s the Iranians M.O. historically.”
In response to the Trump administration’s recent foreign policy decision to kill Soleimani, hundreds of students, faculty and Ann Arbor community members demonstrated against war with Iran.
Rice has also criticized the Trump Administration for not briefing or consulting bipartisan members of Congress in the attack of Soleimani. When asked about the assertion that Trump’s use of military power was similar to the Obama Administration’s airstrike attack in Libya in 2011, Rice cited different circumstances and said the Obama administration did continuously brief Congress.
“We did consult Congress, and we did brief Congress on a sustained basis,” Rice said. “These were different circumstances in that the United States under President Obama passed the United Nations Security Council resolution; I was the ambassador at the time. They gained that authority internationally… So this wasn’t like an overnight Soleimani type thing.”
In response to reports that Trump authorized Soleimani’s killings seven months ago, Rice is critical of any information that comes out of the Trump White House. She said even if the attack was authorized months ago, it would undermine the President’s authority to use his Article II powers.
“If that’s true, and I’ve obviously seen those reports, then it grossly undermines the argument of an imminent threat. And the importance of imminence is for the President to have the legal authority to use his Article II powers as Commander in Chief,” Rice said. “Absent an active Congress. Absent other international domestic legal authority, you can do so principally only in response to an imminent threat as an act of self-defense. And that appears not to have been the case in this instance, given what we’re learning subsequently in the administration’s shifting explanations and inability to provide any evidence of an imminent threat.”
In speaking with The Daily, Ambassador Rice reemphasized how important it is to look back on Dr. King’s most important teachings.
“I think Dr. King’s most powerful legacy is believing in the inherent value, equality and dignity of every human being,” Rice said. “And so I think what we need to recommit ourselves to — not just on MLK Day — but every day is realizing that vision of every human being, regardless of the race, of their national origin, of their religion, their sexual orientation, of any aspect of who they are, who they wish to be, recognizing that we’re inherently equal and worthy under God and in the eyes of the law.”
Reporter Julia Fanzeres can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org