President Donald Trump and Jordan's King Abdullah II, as first lady Melania Trump and Queen Rania look on, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, April 5, 2017. Trump said on Wednesday that he thought that the former national security adviser Susan Rice may have committed a crime by seeking the identities of Trump associates who were mentioned on intercepted communications and that other Obama administration officials may also have been involved.
Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times
Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

AJC Interview: Susan Rice on Syria, Ebola and that flight over Namibia 

Former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has a blunt assessment of foreign policy under President Donald Trump: She described an “across the board failure” on almost over major international area of import. 

“The national security decision making process in this administration has completely broken down,” she said in an interview. “There’s not a thoughtful discussion given to these issues. And if they did, you still have a president who could care less what his advisers say.” 

Rice, who was national security adviser under President Barack Obama, is in Atlanta on Wednesday to promote her newly-released memoir, “Tough Love.” She’ll sit down with Stacey Abrams tonight at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts

She’s benefited from a surge of publicity from Trump, who called her a “disaster” twice in one tweet. He targeted Rice after she warned in media appearances that political divisions stoked by Trump’s presidency makes the U.S. more vulnerable to foreign meddling.

She views his attacks as a “badge of honor” and hopes the vitriol doesn’t dissuade young people from pursuing careers in the public sector.

“I have enough knives in my back to show for my service,” she said, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Ahead of her visit, she spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her foreign policy advice for Democratic presidential contenders, Atlanta’s role in the Ebola crisis in 2014, her Twitter spat with Trump and a fateful flight over Namibia. 

Editor’s note: This interview was edited and condensed. 

Your book argues that domestic political divisions are the greatest national security crisis that the U.S. faces. What do we do about it?

“First of all, we have to understand why that’s the case and how that’s the case. To shorthand it, our divisions are preventing us from getting essential stuff done to ensure we’re competitive. And secondly, they’re providing a very attractive opening to our adversaries, like Russia, who want to weaken us.

“Our domestic political divisions are holding us back in very important ways. We have got to have a set of reforms to our political system that don’t reward the extremes and don’t enable our political process to be manipulated. We need to reduce the role of money in politics and pursue responsible redistricting. 

“But, ultimately, there are also broader macro reforms that include mandatory national service so that all Americans in the 18-22 range will spend 8 to 12 months to work and cooperate with others -- whether rich or poor, rural or urban, immigrant or not. I try to lay out a series of steps that illustrate how we can go down that path. To do that, we need leaders above all who are interested in our unity and our national cohesion and our strength of democracy.”

You learned some important lessons as a junior staffer after the Black Hawk down crisis in Somalia and the failure to stop genocide in Rwanda. Do you see any parallels to current U.S. foreign policy, and the backlash on withdrawing from Syria? 

“One of the things that went wrong for the Clinton administration in the case of Somalia is, until Black Hawk Down, there wasn’t sustained attention at a senior policy level. It was more left to the deputies. In Rwanda, my conclusion is the U.S. government’s principle failure was never to debate the issue of whether the United States should involve itself in trying to stop the genocide in Rwanda. We just didn’t debate it, in large part because people had a Somalia hangover. 

 “Fast forward, most of the lessons I would draw pertain to the questions of humanitarian intervention in crisis zones. What we’re dealing with in Syria today is how we approach a real terrorism challenge. We learned to fight terrorism with foreign partners, where we could, on their own soil, and that’s what we did in Syria with the Kurds.

 “The national security decision making process in this administration has completely broken down. There’s not a thoughtful discussion given to these issues. And if they did, you still have a president who could care less what his advisers say. Here you have an across-the-board failure on almost every issue of import. The process has broken down and it’s dangerous.”

You’ve seen firsthand the spread of false conspiracy theories, including some that sprang up when Nigeria’s opposition leader suddenly died while you were meeting with him. What role should government play in stopping the spread of misinformation? 

“Well, in our system we ought to have more capacity to do that. We have more transparent and reliable sources of information. The problem we face is that we have leadership that is propagating and giving credence to crazy conspiracy theories. That’s very dangerous and detrimental. Lazy or uninterested or biased people can very easily fail to be rigorous about discerning what is accurate and what is inaccurate. We’re not teaching our children very well how to process this abundance of information.”

So, what debates about how to stop false information should our country be engaging in? 

“What are the sources? How reliable are they? How credible are they? What is the responsibility of social media companies to identify and flag inaccurate content? That’s a robust conversation we need to have. Why is it that it’s OK to finally, belatedly, decide you’re going to police your system when it comes to false information propagated by governments but not when it comes to false information propagated by groups here in the United States? These are the types of things we need to debate.”

Your book outlines the crisis posed by the Ebola outbreak in 2014. Atlanta-based CDC and Emory University both played prominent roles in fighting the spread of the disease. Tell me about the challenges that you faced in Washington. 

“We went from a problem that looked like it might look like an epidemic in west Africa to what could have been a global crisis. The CDC director came to the White House warning that if we don’t do anything dramatically different, we could have 1.4 million infections in three months.”

“President Obama, on the advice of his Cabinet, decided to lean into this and take aggressive action. He led the international community to deploy 3,000 military personnel to build the infrastructure in west Africa needed to fight the disease. 

“If it hadn’t been that surge of American resources and leadership, we would have faced the worst case scenario. God bless the CDC. And God bless Emory and two or three other institutions around the country that had the skill and will to treat those Americans that were infected. That’s an instance where America being ahead of the curve made a huge difference.” 

Trump called you a “criminal” in 2017 and a “disaster” last week. How have those attacks affected your public persona? 

“I bare it all with a badge of honor. Calling me a criminal took me by surprise, I will confess. But it was so unfounded and untethered from fact or reality that it didn’t really get much legs or traction. It was clear in that early stage in his administration he would say or do anything that was expedient. The objective in that moment was to distract from the Russia investigation. It was one of these classic distract-and-deflect maneuvers – and I was an attractive target. But it didn’t last because he turned to the next villain to hype. It’s part of a pattern.

“It was distracting and annoying to me as a private citizen, but it wasn’t as big a deal as some other things that have discouraged me in the last few years: How fragile our norms are, and how swiftly maligned leadership can change the character of our political discourse.”

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in public service but worried about being the only woman, or only black person, in the room? 

“I’d encourage anybody and everybody to seriously consider committing themselves to public service. It is incredibly rewarding and worthwhile working on some of the most important work for our country with smart people who want to do the right thing. I have enough knives in my back to show for my service, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

“If you’re finding yourself as one of the few or the ‘only’s’ in the room, there’s two ways to approach it: To be cowed or intimidated, or to be as competent as you can in your abilities to work hard and do your best and bring you’re a Game and have the confidence and pride that you know what you’re doing.

“The mindset you bring to every environment is hugely important to one’s capacity to succeed. If you’re consistently letting other people’s doubts get into your own head, the folks who don’t want you in the room will have a much easier time. 

“Don’t let it undermine your capacity and confidence of doing your best work. It’s a mind game you have to master. It’s not easy, but you have to believe in yourself and not let other people’s perceptions or mis-perceptions of you become your own. It’s the most important thing my parents taught me.”

So about that flight over Namibia ... People tend to think foreign diplomacy is glamorous, but that’s not always the case, is it? 

“Ha! I was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs and we were in a small propeller plane that took us from one remote place to another. I’m flying in this tight plane with three other colleagues from South Africa to Angola, and midway through the flight I start to feel sick and clammy. I realize I’m going to throw up. I apologize to my colleagues and I pull out an air sickness bag – then a few seconds later I realize my lap is wet. There was a hole in the bottom of the bag. We have no choice but to suck it up until we land for refueling in the middle of the Namibian desert. There’s nothing there except for a fuel pump and a water pump. One of my friends and colleagues literally hoses me down. That’s the glamor of the job. You’ve got to go with the flow.” 

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.