In her candid memoir Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice does something she says she couldn’t as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations or as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser: tell her story. And she does, in a personal and honest manner.
As one commentator noted, Rice became “the right’s favorite chew toy” after the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. After her now infamous Sunday talk show interviews, where she used talking points written by the intelligence community, words like “cover-up,” “incompetent,” and “untrustworthy,” were ones her critics used to describe her. And it stung. The book allows her to defend herself, to “reclaim” her voice. In a clear, systematic way, like the policy veteran she is, she takes each Benghazi charge leveled against her and swats it down point by point.
However, Rice is also honest about the Obama administration’s foreign policy failures. She tries to show the difficulty, uncertainty and miscalculations involved. She writes:
“Failure, as I discovered early, is an inevitable result of policy making. We did fail; we will fail. Our aim must be to minimize the frequency and the prices of failure, while learning from our mistakes — and hopefully not the wrong lessons.”
You might not like her defense of why she was against military intervention in Syria; you might not agree with the choices to support military intervention in Libya; you might say she learned the wrong lessons from the Rwandan genocide. But she owns up to her decisions — the good and the bad.
Rice also talks more broadly about the “politics of personal destruction” that have become all too common in politics these days, from narrow confirmation margins to the impact it has on families of those targeted. It leads to one of the most interesting moments in the book. Rice talked to a former producer at Fox News to find out why she became the “bogey(wo)man of Benghazi.” It’s worth reading the entire explanation, but the short version is quite simple: Every story needs a villain. She became it. Furthermore, she became a “familiar villain,” as seen by some in her role in the unmasking of Trump aides. As such, she could be used to stoke anger (and ratings) among Fox News viewers.
Her brother Johnny, however, had a different assessment. Rice had “acted like a girl.” In other words, she didn’t promote or campaign for herself like a guy would have. Implicit in that is that she also didn’t fight back like a man would have. Despite the many cracks in the glass ceiling, Washington, D.C. — and the levels in government in which she worked — are still a man’s world. It cost her the secretary of state job during Obama’s second term. But it never made her want to leave public service. If anything, it imbued her even more resolve.
For better or worse, Rice earned her hard-nosed (she often uses a different body part) reputation. You can see the roots in her childhood. Any child who’s had to navigate warring parents knows there is a certain level of compromise, diplomacy, and toughness involved. She had to hone and use those skills early on as her parents’ marriage broke down. It helped her in her career as she tried to broker difficult peace agreements. And while her parents didn’t agree on much, they both had a strong sense of public service. In some ways, it’s in the DNA of her family going back to Rice’s maternal grandparents who moved from Jamaica to Maine, as well as her paternal great-grandfather, who was born a slave in South Carolina and eventually founded a school in New Jersey.
In many ways, this memoir is an ode to public service. There is a dignity to serving your country, be it in uniform, at an embassy overseas, or at a national park in the middle of country. But it has become a dirty word in recent years with talk of the Deep State and, more recently, whistleblowers being equated as spies. (She is unsparing in her criticism of Edward Snowden.) She praises the professionalism of the civil and foreign service colleagues she worked with, often in some trying circumstances, but who worked to advance U.S. interests under different administrations. And she shows the hard work, sometimes over years, that it takes to make policy or to reach “a deal.” It’s not just one person, it’s a team — maybe small, maybe large — of people working together to reach an agreement and, maybe, also do some good. During the Obama administration it led to the Iran deal, the normalizing of relations with Cuba, and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Despite the political attacks she’s weathered, she does not believe that America’s political divisions are fatal or permanent. Again, her family is a testament to that. Her son Jake is a well-known conservative Republican. She admits they don’t always see eye-to-eye. They can argue calmly but also like family members who know how to cut deep; they can argue loudly and hurtfully. But they still keep talking, with mutual love and respect. And she writes “without him and our inescapably contrasting views, I doubt I would fully appreciate the urgency and importance of bridging our increasingly deep domestic political divide.”
A student of history, she knows the U.S. has had past periods of strong divisions — the Civil War, the civil rights riots, Vietnam — but America emerged whole and, eventually, stronger. The choice is ours. It’s the kind of tough love we could all use at the moment.
Caitlyn Kim is the Washington, D.C., reporter for Colorado Public Radio. She worked as a U.S. diplomat from 2013-2018, serving in Estonia, Pakistan and D.C.