During a campus talk Tuesday evening, former National Security Advisor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice ’86 expressed regret that Obama administration never closed Guantanamo Bay but said she has no misgivings about its policy in Syria. Nearly one year after the presidential election, Rice also recounted reassuring her 250-person staff after Donald Trump claimed a stunning Electoral College victory on Nov. 8, 2016.
“We’ve got a responsible transition to run,” Rice recounted telling her staff the day after the election, the day she recalled as her hardest in the White House. “This is a country of institutions. We have setbacks – you know, basically, everybody chill the f**k out. We’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.”
Co-hosted by Stanford in Government and the Stanford Speakers’ Bureau, Rice delivered her remarks at Paul Brest Hall in conversation with Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Beyond policy, Rice discussed contemporary politics, free speech issues and the trajectory of her career in government.
White House experience
At the outset of the discussion, McFaul asked Rice about her achievements and failures serving in the Obama administration.
Rice said the Paris Climate Agreement, the opening of Cuba, the Iran nuclear agreement and lesser-known global health and agricultural initiatives were among the projects she found most gratifying.
“The things that I tend to be most proud of are the things that we choose to do because we thought they were particularly impactful or important,” Rice said.
However, Rice expressed regret that the Obama administration failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, saying that President Obama also saw the unfulfilled campaign promise as a “source of deep personal frustration.”
Rice said she has no regrets with regard to the policy decisions about military intervention in Syria. In 2012, the Obama administration drew criticism for not employing military force following the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and, consequently, failing to uphold President Obama’s previous statement that the use of chemical weapons would be viewed as a “red line” requiring military intervention.
“When I look back at the various points of decision, there is not one where I can say with certainty, ‘If I had to do that over again, I would do it differently,’” Rice said.
Rice stated that she was the only person at the decision-making table who advocated for military intervention at the time, but that she now believes this stance was wrong. Even considering President Trump’s recent use of force in Syria, she said, she does not believe that the use of force would have led to any sustained change.
“As you see with President Trump, we felt good for a day, but nothing changed,” Rice said. “Whatever weapons remain are still there. They have not been removed. There was no diplomatic follow-up to capitalize on, perhaps, the shock we delivered by actually employing force.”
Rice and McFaul both reflected that in the world of foreign policy, it can be hard to foresee events that affect their roles dramatically. From the chain of events in the Arab Spring to the “big bummer” of Edward Snowden, the two shared their personal experiences with reacting to surprises.
Stanford-in-Government member Benjamin Wittenbrink ’21 appreciated Rice’s honesty. He said it was clear she had spent time reflecting on past decisions and potential alternative actions.
“She definitely did feel comfortable coming to terms with some of the things,” Wittenbrink said, “or admitting some sort of failure on her part in judgment.”
The modern political climate
Rice also touched upon the importance of free speech and productive political discourse in today’s world. She said the current adversarial political climate worries her.
“I am deeply, deeply concerned that the biggest current threat to our national security is not North Korea, as serious as that is,” Rice said. “It’s not the next terrorist attack, as serious as that is potentially. I think the biggest threat to our security is our domestic political division.”
Rice believes this division is something of which the United States’ adversaries can take advantage. Specifically, she cited the recent Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election through the spread of fake news and misinformation online.
“We are so internally divided,” Rice said. “We are reading what we want to read; we are reinforcing the views we are comfortable with. We will believe anything, no matter how extreme, that reinforces our individual narratives about right or wrong. We have got to get smart about this and realize that we are corroding from within.”
“By bringing Ambassador Rice and showcasing her diverse career, we hoped to illustrate that there is no single path to public service,” said Sam Feineh ’19, Stanford in Government’s director of special events. “You could be an engineer, an artist, a politician – as long as you have a conviction to do good, the rest will follow.”
McFaul also asked Rice to recall memories from her time as a Stanford undergraduate, wanting to emphasize the personal aspects of her story as well as the professional.
“How do you go from a history major at Stanford to National Security Advisor?” he asked jokingly. “Is there a blue book that we can refer to?”
Rice described how she found her knack for negotiation through student activism at Stanford. She discussed anti-apartheid protests in 1985 and 1986, in which McFaul was also involved.
“We were trying to find clever ways to pressure the University that [weren’t] just shouting in White Plaza,” she said.
Rice and a group of students established the Free South Africa Fund, an alternate endowment through which they pressured Stanford to divest from companies that were tied to apartheid in South Africa. They encouraged alumni to donate to the alternative fund, which would only be donated to Stanford if the University divested or if the apartheid naturally ended within 10 years.
“My lesson from that was that there are sometimes less frontal, less belligerent ways [of protesting] that [can] be more effective than shouting in White Plaza,” she said.
Rice closed the event on a lighthearted note, telling the story of how she met her husband, television producer Ian Cameron ’83. She encountered Cameron, a senior in her four-class dorm, at an ice cream social.
After asking each other where they were from, Rice learned that Cameron was from British Columbia, Canada.
“My mind is going, British Columbia … Where is British Columbia?” Rice said amid audience laughter. “And I’m thinking, there’s Colombia in South America … There’s British Guiana and French Guiana … And I asked tentatively, ‘Is that in South America?’ Being an East Coast girl, I didn’t know my Western Canadian Provinces. But, 35 years later, we’re still best friends.”
Contact Claire Dinshaw at cdinshaw ‘at’ stanford.edu and Karen Kurosawa at karen16 ‘at’ stanford.edu..