As a hard-driving star point guard on her high school basketball team, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice wasn't afraid to use sharp elbows to reach her goal. It's a style that's carried from the court through a meteoric career as a U.S. diplomat, and one that's earned her as many detractors as supporters along the way.
As President Barack Obama's presumed choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Rice's style, temperament and her role in explaining the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, have come under scrutiny. Questions have arisen about whether she is too undiplomatic to be America's top diplomat.
"She does have that point guard mentality: the driver, the catalyst. She wants to be the one out front pushing the agenda and driving the body forward," said Ed Luck, dean of the University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, a former special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and a Rice fan. "I'm sure, through the years, her more abusive side has stuck with some people."
From Washington to New York to world capitals, there are varying views of the 48-year-old Rice: Is she the blunt, ambitious diplomat who, as a 28-year-old National Security Council aide questioned whether President Bill Clinton should use the term "genocide" about the deadly situation in Rwanda because it could negatively impact the mid-term elections; the person who reportedly made an obscene gesture toward Clinton-era diplomat Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting; or the U.N. ambassador who took to Twitter to call out Russia and China in plainspoken language for deep-sixing a resolution condemning the crackdown in Syria?
Or is she the self-assured high school valedictorian, Stanford University graduate, Rhodes scholar and child of inner-circle Washington who rose to assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton; vowed to never again be a bystander when a Rwanda-style genocide occurs; and helped convince Obama to intervene militarily in Libya last year while helping push through a strong U.N. resolution giving the administration political cover to do it?
Rice, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged that patience hasn't always been her virtue and that she can be a tough customer when crossed. She makes no apologies for that.
"I'm straightforward. People know when they talk to me that what they see is what they get - that I'm not playing games," Rice said in "How Great Women Lead," a book by Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane released in April. "They see me as pretty open and collaborative, tough when I need to be, but not confrontational for its own sake."
She told the authors, "I think people know not to mess with me," adding, "And if they haven't learned ... and they try, they will learn."
That warning hasn't prevented a flow of Republican lawmakers from trying to mess with her chances of becoming secretary of state. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - whom Rice mocked during the 2008 presidential election for wearing a flak jacket while touring a Baghdad market - is leading the charge against her, calling her unqualified for the job. Other Republicans joined McCain's chorus by branding Rice an Obama political toady who besmirched her diplomatic title by going on Sunday news shows so close to a highly contested presidential election and firmly, but incorrectly, stating that the Benghazi attack was the outcome of spontaneous demonstrations and not terrorism.
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