Susan Rice looks back on her time with the Obama administration

The national security adviser talks transitions and what we should be worried about.

Susan Rice is President Obama’s national security adviser and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Do you have a list of three countries that the United States should be keeping the closest watch on?

You know what, my list is longer than three. That’s the nature of the work that I do. I don’t have the luxury of focusing on three.

Is Canada close to the top of the list?

Canada is not near the top of the list. Canada is one of the few countries on the planet that I don’t stress about.

What was the best advice you received when you started the job?

I think the advice comes in different forms from different places. One of the most important things that I’ve tried to learn and that I would impart to my successor is that you have to be able to do not only the urgent and the crisis out of left field, but you also have to find time for the important. That advances our agenda and takes advantages of opportunities rather than just respond to the incoming crises. I’m proud that under President Obama we’ve been able to do that. We’ve been able, for example, to negotiate the Iran deal, which will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We’ve executed an opening to Cuba, which we think, in the long term, will be beneficial — certainly for Cuba and definitely for the United States. We’ve been able to get a historic climate agreement. These were all things that we chose to do. They were not crises coming at us in the most direct sense.

What should we be most worried about?

We are correct to be concerned about another significant terrorist attack on the homeland or on American interests or personnel overseas. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to focus on defeating ISIL and al-Qaeda, and we’ve made real progress in that regard, but these are persistent threats, and so that remains a concern.

There’s always the risk of a major international actor — Russia, for example, or maybe China — engaging in some kind of activity that provokes conflict, interstate conflict. And if it threatens our interests, or our allies are implicated, that could draw us into conflict. I think that’s a low-probability scenario, but not a zero-probability scenario.

And I’ll give you one thing that I think few people will think about but truthfully keeps me up at night, and that’s the risk of a major pandemic disease outbreak. Something like an avian flu that’s highly transmissible, that could be devastating from the human security point of view, the national security point of view and the economic point of view.

What advice would you give to your successor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn?

I’m giving him a lot of advice. I don’t know how much he will take, but I have met with him for an initial lengthy sit-down. I will do as I would do with any designated successor regardless of who had won the election, and that is to try to share, as best I can, a full appreciation of the challenges and opportunities that they’ll inherit and what we have learned in the process of trying to tackle those problems. Whatever advice I can impart as to what they might encounter and what they should do next. Now, again, I can’t be certain how much of that will have an impact, but it’s my responsibility to do whatever I can to pass on what we’ve learned.

When you ask political figures about regrets, they always try to say they don’t have any. Do you have regrets about your role as national security adviser?

I have issues that we found very, very in­trac­table and whose outcome one can only say is deeply disappointing. And I think top of my list would be Syria. I don’t think there’s any denying that that is a horrific human tragedy and one with significant security consequences. That does not mean that I think there are obvious things we could have or should have done differently. I actually think, and many may disagree with this, that the fundamental choice that the president made not to get involved in the conflict between Assad and the opposition, in a direct fashion, was the right choice for U.S. interests. And his decision that we should focus our effort and energy on dealing with ISIL and the proximate security threat that that posed to the United States and our allies and partners, I think that that was the right decision. And to be the most generous contributor of humanitarian assistance, that is obviously who we are as Americans. We’ve given over $5.5 billion. But nobody can be satisfied with the trajectory of the conflict. I think it’s heartbreaking. And it’s very hard, when you sit in my seat, to not look at that and say I wish that could have evolved differently.

Would you work for President Trump if he asked you to stay?

No. I was planning to leave in any event, and I’m still planning to leave. And whoever is the new president deserves a fresh team. And I would have said that, frankly, if Secretary Clinton had been elected, even though, obviously, she’s someone with whom I worked before and enjoyed working with and am much more closely aligned ideologically.

What do you think will be going through your mind when you walk out the door for the last time?

I learned the first time I worked here back in the 1990s in the Clinton administration that every night I walk out I should just take a look up at the White House under lights and remind myself what a privilege it is to be able to serve our country and serve a great president. That’s something that I’ve tried every day not to take for granted. When I leave for the last time on Jan. 20, my overwhelming emotion will be that this has been a huge privilege. And some sadness, but a great deal of pride in what we’ve been able to do. And we’ll hope that the progress this country has made under President Obama can be sustained.

More Just Asking

For stories, features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

Follow the Magazine on Twitter.

Like us on Facebook.

Email us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.