Sunday, August 18, 2013

Thrust Into Nonstop Turmoil, an Obama Adviser Counsels Pragmatism

Published: August 16, 2013

CHILMARK, Mass. — Each morning this week, Susan E. Rice has called or come to a secluded contemporary house here, intelligence reports at hand, to brief President Obama about the chaotic world that has followed him on vacation.


Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
Susan E. Rice, left, seen in the White House Rose Garden in June, has been on the job as national security adviser for six weeks.


Blood and Chaos Prevail in Egypt, Testing Control (August 17, 2013)

Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting (August 8, 2013)

On Wednesday, Ms. Rice, the national security adviser, delivered a particularly troubling report: Egypt’s military had begun a bloody operation to clear two camps of demonstrators protesting on behalf of that country’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi. Among the options she laid out was a plan already on the table to pull the United States from joint military exercises with Egypt.

After Mr. Obama left to play golf, Ms. Rice, 48, returned to her own lodgings to consult with aides at the White House. After 5 p.m., the two spoke again, and Mr. Obama signed off on the plan.

The turmoil in Egypt, which erupted in early July just as she took up her job, has presented the toughest test yet for Ms. Rice, who in six weeks has already dealt with a terrorist scare that prompted the closing of embassies across the Middle East and with the latest chapter in deteriorating relations with Russia: the saga of Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, which led Mr. Obama to cancel a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Given her reputation as an outspoken defender of human rights and advocate of American intervention to prevent abuses, some analysts wondered if Ms. Rice, a former United Nations ambassador, would bring a more muscular, idealistic cast to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.

Aides said her counsel on Egypt, however, had been resolutely pragmatic: signal America’s displeasure by canceling the military exercises and holding up the delivery of F-16 fighter jets, but avoid rupturing a four-decade relationship with Egypt’s military leaders.

“She has wanted to preserve the relationship,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “She’s pretty realistic on some of these issues.”

The mere fact that Ms. Rice has traveled to Martha’s Vineyard this week attests to her closeness to the president. She is the first national security adviser to make one of Mr. Obama’s vacation trips, which were staffed in the past by aides like Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, and Denis R. McDonough, the chief of staff, whose history with Mr. Obama goes back to the 2008 campaign.

And Ms. Rice is not only working, she is also socializing with Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle. On Wednesday evening, after briefing him on Egypt, Ms. Rice attended a sunset cocktail party given for the Obamas by the cable TV mogul Brian Roberts, mingling with guests like Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Valerie Jarrett, a close Obama adviser; and Larry David, who talked about his new HBO movie, set on Martha’s Vineyard.

Ms. Rice, who got to know Mr. Obama as a foreign policy adviser during his campaign in 2008, has brought along her husband, Ian Cameron, a TV producer, and their two children. In between the crises, aides say, she is trying to spend time with her family.

People who know Ms. Rice said she aspires to be not just a confidante and internal broker of policy options for the president — as was the model for previous national security advisers — but also a strategic thinker and a public voice for foreign policy.

If so, Egypt may be a hard policy to sell. The administration’s reluctance to cast off the Egyptian military is exposing it to criticism that it is tolerating a brutal regime with no plans to return Egypt to democracy and no qualms about gunning down its people. Ms. Rice, officials said, will have to judge how much bloodshed the United States can stomach.

It is a familiar quandary. Ms. Rice pushed Mr. Obama to back a NATO intervention against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya and has expressed regret, as an official involved in the debate, that the Clinton administration did not do more to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

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