A Foreign Service veteran who rose to assistant secretary of State for African affairs in the Clinton administration, Susan Rice was deeply shaken by the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the American failure to act. She is an outspoken advocate of international intervention in Darfur and is Barack Obama's leading adviser on foreign policy.
NJ: You've advocated intervention--including military intervention--in humanitarian crises. Isn't that a hard sell in light of Iraq, especially for the candidate advocating a 16-month timeline for withdrawal?
Rice: I've written about an existing norm of international law, the responsibility to protect, which contemplates the potential need for the use of force as a last resort in the instance of genocide or massive crimes against humanity. That norm has been largely ineffectual in its practical applications because individual states of the international community lack the will to act in cases that shock the conscience, like Darfur.
The Bush administration has remonstrated for five years about the genocide in Darfur. Yet we have imposed only the mildest of sanctions, and we have given only lip service to standing up a [joint] African Union-United Nations force. The imperative has to be to pressure the regime to stop the killing, and to allow the A.U.-U.N. force to deploy effectively. The second part of the challenge is to help the U.N.-African Union with the resources it needs to be an effective force. Right now, it doesn't have [enough] troops, it doesn't have helicopters, night vision.
That's not to say the U.S. needs to make a military contribution. There's much we can do to support the deployment of effective forces from other countries. [But in general] what we've been lacking is a willingness to recognize that in addition to our substantial humanitarian and moral interest in Africa, we have serious security and strategic interests.
NJ: Obama has called for increasing U.S. forces in Afghanistan even as we draw down in Iraq. How will he do that?
Rice: Our presence in Iraq at this level is unsustainable for any length of time, given the extraordinary strain it's placing on our military. The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is rapidly deteriorating, and we don't have the forces, as our commanders have said repeatedly, to put on the ground in Afghanistan in the south to help push back Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
So we have to adjust in Iraq as a matter of our larger national security interests. We need to redeploy our forces from Iraq responsibly and at a pace that military commanders believe is viable and sustainable, one or two combat brigades a month.
NJ: How much of what Senator Obama has proposed is really new, and how much does he represent a return to a pre-Bush consensus on security matters?
Rice: Senator Obama is fundamentally a pragmatist with respect to national security policy. He believes in the tradition of a bipartisan foreign and national security policy that has been entirely abrogated under the Bush administration and seemingly would continue to be so under John McCain. It is the Bush-McCain approach that has been radically unilateral, radically military in its orientation.
Senator Obama understands, and Senator McCain doesn't seem to understand, that we don't live in the Cold War anymore, that the nature of the threats we face is increasingly transnational. In the 21st century, the things that can harm Americans range from terrorists with weapons of mass destruction to criminal organizations to disease, even the consequences of climate change. We need a much smarter approach that can protect us from not only traditional state-based threats but also nontraditional, transnational threats--which by definition require global and collaborative approaches.
NJ: Yet, isn't it Obama who was accused of saber-rattling when he raised the possibility of unilateral strikes against Qaeda targets on Pakistani soil?
Rice: Senator Obama was criticized by President Bush, John McCain, and even some of his Democratic opponents at the time for saying that he would do exactly what successive American administrations have done to protect our national security. What he said was, if we have actionable intelligence about a high-value Al Qaeda target, such as [Osama] bin Laden, in Pakistan or indeed elsewhere, and the host government is unwilling or unable to act, he will act.
That's common sense. The alternative would be to have actionable intelligence about a high-value target and just let Osama bin Laden or [his deputy, Ayman] Zawahiri go about their business. Yet for cheap political points, others have claimed that perhaps he shouldn't have said that.
This article appears in the July 12, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.