Diplomat emerges a leader Spotlight: One of the youngest-ever assistant secretaries of state was thrust into coordinating rescue efforts after the bombings in Africa.

August 17, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Susan Rice left the White House last year to become one of the youngest-ever assistant secretaries of state, she got a gag gift of a Zulu warrior's shield and club for the turf battles ahead.

Rice was already armed with plenty of brass.

"Sometimes I'm a little too upfront and straightforward for some people's liking," she admits, brandishing the confidence that comes with an extraordinary academic record, a lifelong friendship with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and the star quality that clings to a stylish African-American woman unafraid to be the smartest person in the room.

But nothing prepared the 33-year-old chief of the State Department's Africa bureau for the emotional wallop of twin terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania Aug. 7. Last week she had to accompany the bodies of murdered colleagues on their final trip home.

"This was a nuclear weapon," acknowledged Rice, whose talents already were being tested by an explosive assignment.

Thrust into a leading role in coordinating rescue and relief efforts, Rice has simultaneously been grappling with another regional crisis: a war in Congo -- replete with reports of renewed ethnic strife -- that threatens to spill into other central African countries.

Meanwhile, out of the immediate spotlight, Ethiopia and Eritrea have bombed each other, Angola's civil war threatens to flare up again and Sudan's north-south conflict could mean massive starvation.

If that wasn't enough to worry about, oil-rich Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, remains a volatile question mark after the unexpected deaths of both its military chief and leading opposition figure.

Turmoil in Africa

All of a sudden, Africa is hot, but not because of the economic and political renaissance Rice wants to encourage there.

"A lot of other countries have seen political and economic opportunity in Africa when we have written it off," she says.

The recent turmoil -- not counting the bombings, which appear to have had little to do with Africa -- has prompted criticism that the administration tends to be overly optimistic about the continent and minimizes its problems and needs.

Chester Crocker, Rice's predecessor in the Reagan administration, warns: "Without stability, you're not going to have anything else take place in the region."

He questions whether African leaders take the United States seriously: "We're doing a lot of hand-wringing; I'm not sure a lot of folks are listening to us."

Jim Woods, a former Defense Department official who specialized in African affairs, said there are many discouraging signs.

"Africa has 48 states, and four of the big five are disasters," he said. With Congress refusing to boost aid or back United Nations peacekeeping operations and the U.S. military reluctant to get involved, "It doesn't give you a hell of a lot to work with."

Raising nation's profile

Rice responds that America's heavy-handed Cold War approach toward Africa no longer is appropriate. What's needed now, she says, is a partnership with African leaders.

No one questions the administration's success in raising Africa's profile, and Rice gets a large share of the credit.

"She's energetic, youthful, gutsy and determined -- you need that," says Crocker.

High achiever

Born into a high-achieving family, Susan Elizabeth Rice was raised in the shaded Portal Estates neighborhood of handsome brick homes in upper northwest Washington. Her father, banker-economist Emmett Rice, used to play tennis on Sundays with Joseph Albright, then the husband of the secretary-to-be.

She made the most of an elite education: valedictorian at the National Cathedral School, Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, Rhodes Scholar, Oxford Ph.D. with a prize-winning dissertation.

During a break in graduate school, Rice worked on Michael Dukakis's failed 1988 Democratic presidential bid, for which Albright served as foreign policy adviser.

Rice particularly impressed Dukakis aide Nancy Soderberg, who sought her out four years later in putting together a National Security Council staff for President Clinton. At the time, Rice was a management consultant in Toronto, where her husband, Ian Cameron, worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. He is now a producer in Washington for ABC News.

"She turned out to be a star," said Soderberg, who later gave her the Zulu club and shield. "She has nerves of steel and won't back down."

Making her presence felt beyond the NSC, Rice was known to call the shots at meetings chaired by others.

"She has acquired some determined enemies," says Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service.

But Rice acquired considerable clout. Her friendship with Albright gives the Africa bureau, which she has headed since last October, greater entree to the upper reaches of the State Department than it has had in years. She got President Clinton to make phone calls during her peace mission for Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Confidence despite criticism

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