Revenge is a dish best served cold. Except when it's best served hot.
Just a few months ago, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and soon to be President Barack Obama's national security adviser, saw her main chance to become secretary of state dissipate before her eyes as Senate Republicans (with John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the lead) excoriated her for, as they saw it, misleading the public about the attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year.
Ms. Rice was forced to withdraw her name, and then-Sen. John Kerry was awarded the job. Now Ms. Rice will be, in effect, Mr. Kerry's supervisor. Sens. McCain and Graham, by turning Ms. Rice into the scapegoat of the Benghazi debacle, have inadvertently allowed the president to bring her into the innermost ring of power, in a role that requires no Senate confirmation.
In the highly centralized White House foreign-policy and national-security operation, the secretary of state, even one of Mr. Kerry's stature, does comparatively little to set the administration's overarching policy. Mr. Kerry seems to spend most of his waking hours pursuing a semi-quixotic Middle East peace plan. It will be Ms. Rice's job to interpret the president's broadest wishes and put them into place across several government departments.
Her influence will be especially pronounced because she is part of Mr. Obama's original foreign-policy team: In what could have been a near-suicidal career move, Ms. Rice, an official in President Bill Clinton's administration, signed on to Mr. Obama's campaign when his victory seemed unlikely.
In the period when the Senate's scapegoating of Ms. Rice was at its peak, Mr. Obama seemed frustrated by how she was treated. Her appointment is partly payback for her loyalty and a thumb in the eyes of her Senate critics. It is also a sign that the president and Ms. Rice are in sync on a broad set of issues, and here is where it gets interesting.
Ms. Rice is known as a liberal interventionist, but those who advocate greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war, the most acute problem Ms. Rice will face in her new position, will be disappointed to learn that she isn't particularly optimistic about the effect that any U.S. action -- such as imposing a no- fly zone -- could have on the war's outcome.
Ms. Rice, like the president, seems focused on the possibility that the downfall of Bashar al-Assad's regime could mean a victory for al Qaida-like groups that represent some of the strongest elements of the Syrian opposition. The Obama administration is desperately seeking to avoid the creation of terrorist havens in Syria, because they would represent a direct national-security threat to the United States and require an armed American response.
The American experience in Libya -- not the Benghazi attack, which was searing in its own way -- has also chastened the president's national-security team: The intervention on behalf of rebels fighting the late, unlamented dictator Moammar Gadhafi may very well have saved thousands of innocent lives, but the fallout from his overthrow (the rise of al Qaida-like groups, the spread of Libyan weapons across Africa, the general misery and instability that now afflicts the country) has taught Mr. Obama's advisers important lessons about the unpredictability of intervention. Politically, the administration has seen no upside to the Libyan intervention -- it was criticized for recklessness by both Democrats and Republicans.
That said, Ms. Rice is, by disposition and ideology, a strong advocate of American power, and her formative experience in government came when she watched, impotently, as hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Clinton administration had the power to intervene but didn't. Ms. Rice is committed to preventing other Rwandas, but I'm told that she doesn't see what is happening in Syria as the equivalent. At least not yet.
Ms. Rice has been known as a tough, sometimes brusque, operator. She suffered post-Benghazi because she had previously made little effort to befriend senators and members of the news media, among others. But lately, perhaps in preparation for a job she suspected was coming her way, she has become more, well, diplomatic. Not diplomatic enough for some: One of the darkly humorous moments of the Benghazi witch hunt came when some Republicans complained to me that Ms. Rice had manhandled the Russian delegation to the United Nations. This may have been the first time since the Bolshevik Revolution that Republicans were worried about the feelings of senior Russian officials.
I suspect that Sens. McCain and Graham will come to appreciate Ms. Rice's toughness. I'm not sure I can say the same for certain aging ex-senators -- Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Mr. Kerry -- who believe themselves to be at the core of the national-security operation.
Susan Rice is not Condoleezza Rice, who was steamrolled on more than one occasion by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, when she served as President George W. Bush's national security adviser. Susan Rice won't be easily outmaneuvered.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View.