The Envoy

UN envoy Susan Rice addresses interest groups, in move some see advancing Secretary of State bid

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UN envoy Susan Rice spoke to AJC's David Harris Monday. (AJC)

UN ambassador Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy adviser, has been stepping up her outreach to key domestic constituencies and deepening her relationships with influential interest groups lately. Such outreach is of course essential to advance domestic support for the U.S. foreign policy agenda. But observers note it's also smart politics for someone widely rumored to be in the mix to be a possible Secretary of State if Obama wins a second term.

(If you're wondering about current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she has repeatedly said she intends to step down after the end of Obama's first term—despite her enjoying high popularity numbers. ("There's so many things I'm interested in, I mean, really going back to private life and spending time reading, and writing, and maybe teaching, doing some personal travel, not the kind of travel where you bring along a couple of hundred people with you," Clinton told Tavis Smiley last year.)

Take, for example, Rice's key role in the Obama administration's high profile diplomatic lobbying against the Palestinian UN statehood recognition bid, in the run up and aftermath to Obama's speech at the UN last September vowing to wield the United States' UN Security Council veto if needed to block the measure. The Palestinian UN bid was and is fiercely opposed by Israel; the Obama administration's position that Palestinian statehood can only be achieved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations was a relief to Jerusalem as well as to several American pro-Israel groups.

Unsurprisingly, then, the reception was particularly warm when Rice addressed the American Jewish Committee National Board of Governors meeting in New York Monday afternoon--though it was in fact Rice's third address to the group the past three years.

"Let me begin by saying that from the United States' point of view, the achievement of an independent Palestinian state can only come through direct negotiations and a negotiated two-state solution," Rice said in a conversation with AJC President David Harris before the group. "We very much want to see that day come, and we very much want to see the outcome of that two-state solution realized. But it's not going to happen through a shortcut at the United Nations and that's what we have been arguing."

Her AJC appearance Monday came on the heels of Rice being awarded the National Service Award from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last month. ("Let me say a few words about our extraordinary partnership with Israel, starting by affirming an essential truth that will never change: the United States remains fully and firmly committed to the peace and security of the Jewish state of Israel," Rice said upon receiving the Conference award.)

Both recent appearances have given Rice an opportunity to offer a "great defense of the administration's achievements," one aide told Yahoo News last week, enthusiastically referencing her receiving the Conference of Presidents' award. They have also given Rice an opportunity to develop her rapport with a key and highly engaged Democratic foreign policy constituency.

Rice has also brought new staff onto her team to advance her bench strength on key issues in play at the UN. Middle East expert Scott Lasensky joined Rice's team last month from the U.S. Institute of Peace to work as a senior adviser on the Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon portfolio, and also to help Rice with outreach to Jewish groups. Elisa Catalano, previously a senior adviser on Iran in the office of then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, now Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, has joined US/UN's Washington office to advise Rice on Iran and Iraq;  Eric Polofsky works as an adviser on Libya and AfPak. They are among seven foreign policy experts who report to the head of Rice's US/UN State Department Washington team, Rexon Ryu, a former Obama NSC and White House nonproliferation official and aide to former Sen. Chuck Hagel.

Veteran foreign policy observers say Rice, in her expanded outreach to domestic special interest groups, is demonstrating the sharp political skills that have proved essential for past successful Secretaries of State, from Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton.

"That is what doing policy in a democracy means," Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton-era NSC and State Department official who now heads the progressive National Security Network, told Yahoo News Tuesday.

One particular challenge of the domestic politics of foreign policy, Hurlburt noted, however, is that "you can go out and talk to the public in considerably more detail about health care than you can about most foreign policy issues. [So] you have to find surrogates, and the interest group route is one way to go."

Recent history shows, she said, "that the most effective Secretaries of State have been people who understood the need to maintain a public profile and be a political actor without being partisan-ly political."

Hurlburt cited the example of then US ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright giving a speech in 1996 at the Miami Orange bowl memorial service for two Cuban émigré pilot brothers whose plane was shot down by Castro's regime. "This is not cojones," Albright said. "This is cowardice."

The speech-wildly well received by the Cuban American emigre community--for the first time really thrust Albright onto the national stage, Hurlburt said. "If you think about it, it shows a fabulous political sense."

It also reportedly endeared her to President Clinton, who tapped Albright to be the first U.S. female Secretary of State in his second term.

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