12/11/2012 05:23 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Setting the Record Straight

As a potential candidate for Secretary of State, Ambassador Susan Rice has had to quietly withstand weeks of partisan attacks and score-settling. Whether it is blaming her for genocide in Rwanda or alleging a cover-up related to the tragedy in Benghazi, critics are tarnishing nearly two-decades of distinguished public service. The story not yet told is the one about Ambassador Rice, an independent thinker, forthright in her views, who has the intellectual fortitude and diplomatic agility to strengthen U.S. leadership in a rapidly changing world.

Rice's career demonstrates that she has the courage to chart new directions that position us for the future, even when that means breaking with policies of the past. While this may not be a recipe for promotion in politically-charged Washington, my own view as a scholar of international relations who served in the Obama White House, is that we need more people like this at the highest levels of government, not fewer.

Take her service as President Clinton's lead diplomat for Africa. When Rice assumed this portfolio in the mid-1990s, Africa was a backwater in U.S. foreign policy. The Cold War was over, and with it went the high-level imperative to cultivate and maintain close bilateral relations with governments throughout the region. Congress wanted to slash U.S. foreign assistance to the continent, and U.S. diplomats were turning their attention elsewhere, prepared to do the minimum but without any affirmative vision for a way forward.

Rice rejected this view and, from her positions at the White House and later the State Department, fought tirelessly to re-imagine the U.S. relationship with Africa for the 21st century. She saw the continent, not as a geopolitical playground, but as the world's largest untapped market, with extraordinary potential for growth and economic vitality. She understood the political changes sweeping the continent and believed the United States could be a critical partner to the region's new democracies. And she was convinced that our diplomatic leverage was essential for bringing the region's long-running conflicts to a peaceful end.

The days of a senior U.S. diplomat are often consumed by crisis diplomacy, and Rice's tenure at the State Department was no exception. She negotiated an end to the bloody war between Ethiopia and Eritrea; forged a cease-fire in a Congolese conflict that brought in armies from many neighboring states; and did the painstaking diplomatic work of building an international coalition to press the Sudanese government into a peace deal with the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which finally came to fruition in the Bush administration.

While she engaged in crisis diplomacy, Rice assiduously carved out time to lay the foundation for a fundamentally different economic relationship between the United States and Africa. Because the U.S. has an interest in a stable, prosperous Africa, she made it a top priority to accelerate the region's economic growth and integration in the global economy. The historic African Growth and Opportunity Act was a singular legislative achievement, granting African countries unprecedented access to U.S. markets. Under AGOA, African exports to the U.S. have increased by more than 500 percent, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. More than $32 billion in debt owed by 22 African countries was also relieved by the U.S. and other donors, as the U.S. worked diligently to free up those resources for critical investments in health and education. Today, six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, and investors view the emerging economies in the region as destinations with enormous potential.

Rice's ability to see new opportunities and effectively help the U.S. government strategically pivot in its approach was again on display as events unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. The protests of the Arab Spring threatened to unravel a web of U.S. security relationships in the Middle East that had been in place for nearly 40 years. It would have been easy for the U.S. to stay silent, as it wasn't clear that many of the regimes would fall, and there was great uncertainty about the kinds of governments that might emerge to replace America's long-standing allies.

But Rice recognized quickly that this was a historic moment as citizens lost their fear and began to openly voice demands for change. Inside the administration, she passionately made the case that the U.S. could not stand on the sidelines as regimes escalated violence against their own people. Instead, the U.S. needed to exercise its influence to stop the violence and press for changes that would meet the legitimate aspirations of people for democracy and economic opportunity.

At the United Nations, Rice strongly advocated for international intervention to protect Libyan civilians from the atrocities perpetrated by Qaddafi. And she personally led the effort to build an unprecedented international coalition -- with the support of the Arab League -- to bring Qaddafi's terror to an end. To this day, she remains at the center of the President's effort to chart a new course in the region, one that secures American interests while addressing the fundamental aspirations of ordinary people. Indeed, Rice has made it her mission to increase international pressure on Assad in Syria, with the goal of ending violence and enabling Syrians to finally have a say in how they are governed.

I am not a Washington insider, but I did learn a great deal about how Washington works during my two years on the foreign policy staff at the White House. From my perspective, Ambassador Rice represents the kind of person who deserves a promotion -- someone willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, speak up for the values they hold deeply, disagree with others when warranted no matter their position or political ties, and ensure that we take a fresh look at every challenge we confront.

In the President's second term, we need a strong and thoughtful strategist at the helm of the State Department -- a Secretary who can make sense of the world we face, envision the world we seek, and develop an effective approach to get from one to the other. I hope the President ignores the pundits and chooses the partner he needs to advance his vision of U.S. global leadership. I am confident he'll find that Ambassador Rice is uniquely qualified for the job.

Jeremy Weinstein is Associate Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He served as Director for Democracy and Development on the National Security Council Staff between 2009 and 2011.