Globe columnist Joan Vennochi spoke with Susan Rice, former national security adviser under the Obama administration, about US strategy in Syria, President Trump, and running for public office. Rice, who was also US ambassador to the United Nations, is author of the new book “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.” The interview, which was conducted by phone on Oct. 16, has been edited and condensed.
What do you think of President Trump’s remarks that the Kurds are no angels and, in some cases, no better than ISIS?
I have to be careful about superlatives about the president, but it may be one of the most dishonest and destructive statements I’ve actually heard him make. There’s no equating. . . . . The bottom line is, why is he doing this? Why did he sell out our partners among the Kurds, who fought and died for us in the fight against ISIS? Why did he sell out to ISIS, to Putin, to Erdogan and Assad? That’s what he’s done in one fell swoop.
What are your thoughts on why?
I don’t know the answer to the question of why. But I think it’s one we have to press, energetically. But I will say this: What we’ve learned about Trump in recent weeks is that he has not been pursuing an America First policy, as small-minded and ineffective as that would be. He’s pursuing a Me First policy. And all he seems to be interested in getting out of his foreign interlocuters, whether it’s the president of Ukraine or the president of China, or Putin is something that benefits him personally, whether it’s political advantage or financial advantage.
During the Democratic debate, the candidates were asked what their Syria policy would be. Would they send US troops back to Syria? What advice would you give them?
If this were 2020, the answer I’d give you I can’t tell you, because I don’t know where we would be at that point. If it were today or tomorrow, I would say the most important thing for a new president to do is reestablish confidence in the competence and integrity of the president of the United States. That means telling the truth. That means not being dangerously unpredictable. That means standing up with and for our allies and partners and not viewing every relationship as a transaction. That means being very clear about who our friends are and who our foes are, and recognizing that unfortunately, in the present, the Putins and the Kim Jong Uns of the world are not our friends. And they are our adversaries and they need to be treated as such. . . . So there’s a huge repair work that needs to be done broadly and not just in the context of Syria.
At this point, people might not believe what we say, or even want us there.
If you were narrowly talking about Syria, what is necessary is to reestablish deterrence. Deterrence of the Turks, so that they know if they’re going to kill the Kurds, they’re going to risk killing Americans. We had that deterrence until two weeks ago. And the Russians weren’t messing with us, and the Turks weren’t messing with us. Because they knew, should we decide, we had the capacity to give them a hell of a fight. In the case of the Turks, it wasn’t going to be a fair fight.
You write that we need “a rational and measured exit strategy” in Afghanistan. Is there really a way to end these so-called endless wars without chaos and disruption?
That’s obviously the principle policy challenge. . . . First of all, there needs to be a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. If we just pull out unilaterally, we’re going to repeat on a greater scale what we’re seeing in Syria now. But there needs to be a settlement that’s worthy of the American, the Afghan, and the NATO sacrifices there, that doesn’t reward the Taliban with a visit to Camp David without them committing to negotiate with the Afghan government, without them committing to a governing process that preserves women’s rights, or any of the things people have fought and sacrificed for over the past 20 years. So there needs to be a negotiated settlement, but we need to negotiate frankly from a position of strength and legitimacy, which President Trump clearly isn’t capable of doing. Take Syria now. If you’re the Afghan government, after what you’ve just seen us do in Syria, would you ever trust a deal we cut with the Taliban?
People in other countries will now expect the same will happen to them?
How can they assume otherwise, rationally? To be honest, the Kurds were about as straightforward and uncontroversial a partner — in the American context. I understand the difference from the Turkish point of view — but from our perspective, you know, these are people who bravely fought and died, 11,000 of them, to put ISIS on a path to defeat, so that we did not have to commit our own forces in ground combat. On a bipartisan basis, that was US policy, and the Kurds have fought heroically. And we just threw them under the bus. Afghanistan is much more complicated. Things there are much less clear-cut in many ways.
Trump defenders say the Obama administration decisions, specifically concerning Syria after Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons, set up today’s situation. Why is that thinking wrong?
When it comes to Syria, there are three different fights we had to make a judgment on How to respond to chemical weapons use; how to respond to the Syrian civil war and the effort to unseat Assad; and thirdly, the fight against ISIS. President Obama made the decision to fight ISIS, and he was the one who deployed forces to Iraq, as well as Syria, and started this partnership with the Kurds, in the absence of Turkey or other players in the region being willing to take the fight to ISIS. That was a wise decision. It was an uncontroversial decision. We could not let ISIS, which directly threatened the US, our allies, and our interests, and had killed a bunch of Americans, go uncontested. So that’s the fight that Trump has just upended. It has zero to do with chemical weapons.
But we can discuss the decision that President Obama made in 2013 — to seek congressional approval before striking at chemical weapons related infrastructure in Syria. We were locked and loaded. But he wanted Congress’s approval because he anticipated that a serious effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons might necessitate more than a one-night strike. It could become more of an involved military campaign. I was the one senior official who dissented from that decision. I thought he should go ahead without congressional approval because I didn’t think he’d get it. In retrospect, I was right about the politics — he didn’t get it — but wrong about the policy. Because at the end of the day, in the absence of congressional authority, we worked a diplomatic arrangement through which Syria was compelled to declare its chemical weapons stockpile and ship out for destruction 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons. Which never would have been removed by the strike plan that we had in place.
Fast-forward to 2017 and 2018, in case we need any validation of that, and when Syria again used chemical weapons, President Trump took President Obama’s strike package off the shelf and executed it in one night of strikes. He did that in 2017 and again in 2018. And, you know, I supported it. And lots of people felt good about it. But what did it accomplish? Did one metric ton of chemical weapons leave Syria and get destroyed as a result? Not one. It was 24 hours of feel-good and no follow-up, no diplomacy, no nothing. Whatever weapons Syria had, they still have, and probably more. So, the policy in my opinion turned out to be more beneficial than the night of strikes.
So you don’t regret that during the Obama administration there was no strike?
I have to conclude in looking at that totality, that neither outcome was sufficient. Getting 1,300 metric tons out didn’t mean we got every last one out, or they couldn’t get some more. But striking got nothing done. I’ll take 1,300 to zero. But it’s still not sufficient.
Barack Obama won election twice; then Donald Trump was elected. You said you saw it coming.
I want to be clear: I saw in 2015 the potential for [Trump] to get the nomination, at a time when many people didn’t. And then at a time very close to the elction, in 2016, I foresaw the possibility that he could win. I wasn’t sure he could win. I just worried he might.
Do you think some in the administration, including President Obama, missed the undercurrent of white resentment in this country?
Well, I surely don’t want to speak for President Obama on this. And I also don’t want to attribute the entirety of Trump’s election to white resentment. I think it’s more complicated than that. One of the interesting questions is, what motivated the same people who voted for Obama to vote for Trump? And can you attribute that to white resentment? I don’t think that’s reasonable. There are lots of factors we have to weigh, including people’s perceived social and economic circumstances, the relative strength and efficacy of the Clinton campaign, the role of Russia, which we can’t quantify. . . . There are a whole lot of factors that I think bear consideration.
You write a lot about Benghazi and the attacks on you. They’re still attacking you.
It never ends. . . .
How much do you think race and gender played a role?
I can’t quantify it. I’m not suggesting it played no role. But I’m also not suggesting it was the primary reason. I think my perceived closeness to Obama was important. I think the fact that they had five different video segments to parse, which I served up to them on a silver platter. Whether I was a more attractive villain because I was an African-American woman? Maybe. That was my hypothesis. But I’m not certain of it. And I really don’t think it matters. What I do think matters is that you fast-forward to today and we have the president of the United States demonizing black women and other women of color. Really calling the dogs on them. Inciting violence against them. And that is not only dangerous and divisive. It’s despicable behavior on the part of the president of the United States.
When you see Trump push for what he wants, no matter what, do you ever think maybe President Obama should have done more of that? For example, do you feel the president did all he could to promote you for the job of secretary of state?
He was out there defending me more and sooner than anybody else. In the presidential debate, in his first press conference after he was reelected, he was swinging. With a degree of anger and passion that I think was rare for him in public, and that I very much appreciated. I have no beef with President Obama. I have nothing but respect for how he supported me publicly and, in many ways, privately through that episode and many others. At the end of the day, if you’re asking me, do I wish President Obama were more like President Trump — in a word, no.
You write that growing up in Washington, D.C., your dream was to become a US senator. Do you still think about running for political office?
Yeah. I considered and ultimately rejected the question of whether I should run against Susan Collins, given my ties to Maine after her [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh vote. The bottom line is, I have not ruled out serving again in some capacity whether appointed or elected.
You describe yourself in your book as a truth teller, telling people what they don’t always want to hear. You think there’s a place for that in politics?
That’s who I am. If there’s a place for that in politics or not, I’ll let other people decide. Some people like it, some people don’t. And I’m OK with that.