Susan Rice made clear at Thursday appearance in Santa Fe that she is as complex and multilayered as her foreign service career and the book she wrote to illustrate it.
Rice, 55, a former U.N. ambassador and national security adviser to President Barack Obama, discussed her autobiography Tough Love at a forum hosted by the Santa Fe Council on International Relations.
Rice shared salient moments in her personal and professional life that sometimes spurred applause in the mostly partisan audience and sometimes evoked gasps.
Rice displayed some of the candor seen in her 500-page memoir, reflecting on her parents’ triumph over racism, their tough love toward their children and her ups and downs as a diplomat and presidential adviser.
“I really thought that perhaps I might have something of relevance for someone who was trying to compete and thrive in an unforgiving environment,” Rice said, describing one of her reasons for writing the book.
Rice shared the stage with former State Department colleague Vicki Huddleston, who served as ambassador to Madagascar in the 1990s and Mali in the 2000s. They reminisced about the turbulent times dealing with African affairs in the Clinton administration.
They agreed that the darkest time in that period was when al-Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, which killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
“Susan’s a fighter and she got that from her father who was a governor at the Federal Reserve,” Huddleston said.
Rice said she dealt with the horrible events by plowing ahead with her diplomatic work, but didn’t try to console underlings who were stressed. She later realized that was a mistake, she said.
Rice touched on how she was vilified by those on the right after appearing on Sunday news shows in the aftermath of the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans. Obama’s political opponents bashed her for imparting incorrect information, even though she was simply relaying what the CIA told her.
She wasn’t allowed to defend herself then.
“My job was to speak for the United States ... so I had to basically keep my mouth shut and suck it up,” Rice said. “So when I left government, I felt it was time for me to tell my own story in my own words.”
Rice said she thinks Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is divisive, treating allies like adversaries.
“It’s a me-first foreign policy,” Rice said. “It is all about advancing the personal, political and perhaps financial interests of one man, one family. It is not a foreign policy that is aligned with U.S. national interests and our values.”
Putting that back on track, she said, will be no small challenge.
Rice’s advice to the young people in the audience who are venturing into foreign service, especially those who are minorities, is to not let others dictate their self-worth.
“Never throw the first punch,” Rice said, “but don’t let yourself be pushed around or bullied. You cannot let other people define you for you.”