Ralph Alswang

U.S. News


The Susan Rice Train Wreck

The likelihood of a quick confirmation hearing in the Senate vanished following a sit-down between Ambassador Susan Rice and acting CIA Director Michael Morell on Capitol Hill with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). The meeting was an attempt to address any concerns the lawmakers had about Ambassador Rice and to insure that her confirmation hearing would be less bruising. That attempt, according to interviews given after the meeting by McCain, Graham and Ayotte, was not successful.

“The concerns I have are greater today than they were before, and we’re not even close to getting the basic answers,” Sen. Graham told reporters flanked by McCain and Ayotte. “I would place a hold on anybody who wanted to be promoted for any job who had a role in the Benghazi situation.” “Absolutely, there will be a hold,” Sen. Ayotte told reporters after her meeting with Rice.

For his part, Sen. McCain, who until this past weekend was the driving force behind the criticisms of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi incident that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, told reporters that he was “significantly troubled by many of the answers that we got and some that we didn’t get concerning evidence that was overwhelming leading up to the attack on our consulate that we tried to get.” Many would consider Ambassador Rice to be qualified to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However, due to the partisanship in Washington, her nomination could become a political three-ring circus.

And it’s not just conservatives that object to Rice to possibly head the State Department. One of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), compared Rice’s handling of the Benghazi incident to the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Africa when at the time Rice was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

“Those bombings in 1998 resulted in the loss of life of 12 Americans as well as many other foreign nationals, and 4,000 people were injured,” Collins said in remarks to reporters. “And what troubles me so much is that the Benghazi attacks echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998 when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department… She had to be aware of the general threat assessment and of the ambassadors’ request for more security.”

To assure Rice’s confirmation by the Senate would require Obama to spend significant political capital that would be better spent elsewhere. Not only might Rice’s confirmation be held up in the Senate, the risk now for the Obama administration is that if Michael Morell is nominated to replace David Petraeus at the CIA his nomination will ultimately be stalled, as some Republican Senators will use Benghazi for political gains. Fair or not, the Obama administration is well aware of the risks of nominating Ambassador Rice to replace Secretary Clinton.

This is not to suggest that the administration doesn’t have other alternatives to Rice to head the State Department. It’s a vital cabinet level position that deserves someone who has good report with members of Congress and who can be quickly confirmed. Among the options available are Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), former governor and ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman (not to say that he would accept), Jane Harman, and former Sens. Chuck Hagel or Richard Lugar. All of these possible picks would face little opposition in the Senate and would cost the administration little in the way of political capital.

Over the past four years Obama has shown a tendency to be risk averse and with his second term he possibly might be more inclined to dig in his heals and fight battles with Congress that he believes are worth fighting. However, a fight over the confirmation of Rice isn’t one worth fighting. The administration must negotiate a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” comprehensive immigration reform, climate change legislation, and other stimulative measures to jump start job growth. To opt into a fight over the confirmation of Susan Rice when so many other more important issues are at stake would be foolhardy. By some estimates there are likely not enough votes to confirm Rice as Clinton’s replacement.

In his first press conference following the November 6 election Obama demonstrated his willingness to go to the mat over Rice. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama told reporters but in comments directed at McCain and Graham. “For them to go after the U.N. ambassador…and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous.”

By all accounts the president has significant wiggle room on foreign policy. But one area in which Congress checks the president on foreign policy is in the appointment of Cabinet positions and in particular the Secs. of Defense and State and U.S. Ambassadors. In particular, a Secretary of State is the public face of U.S. diplomacy and according to many accounts Susan Rice can be very “undiplomatic.”

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post, that Rice during a meeting flipped Richard Holbrooke the finger while in the Clinton administration. Many indicators are that if Rice is nominated she’ll have an awkward relationship with Russia, a key ally that the United States needs on a whole host of issues. “Rice’s pugilism provoked the Russians to weigh in this week in opposition to her nomination as secretary of state. The Russian business daily Kommersant quoted an anonymous Russian foreign ministry official as saying that Rice, who quarreled with Russia over Syria, is ‘too ambitious and aggressive,’ and her appointment would make it ‘more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.”

By all accounts Rice has performed reasonably well as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. However, she has in this capacity alienated several diplomats on the U.N. Security Council. Having been described as “undiplomatic” and “sometimes rather rude,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador once admonished Rice by suggesting, “Really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council.”

Rice’s failure on the Sunday morning talk shows is shared by the Obama administration. Even so, Rice repeated the same onerous story that the Benghazi attacks were spontaneous and the result of a YouTube video that few had seen in Libya. She knew the facts that Al Qaeda elements had orchestrated the attack that left Ambassador Stevens dead and rebutted Libyan officials who correctly identified the culprits.

As Secretary of State Clinton steps down she leaves a mixed legacy. She has largely avoided the same level of scrutiny for the failures in Benghazi, as Congressional Republicans chose instead to focus their energy on Susan Rice. The Israeli-Hamas ceasefire came about due to her shuttle diplomacy, after being dispatched by President Obama to the region. Clinton’s success can be attributed to her ability to be diplomatic, to finesse both sides, but Rice’s tendency to be undiplomatic or a “bull-in-a-china-shop” in her current role doesn’t bode well should she be promoted.

As Maureen Dowd writes in the New York Times, “An Africa expert, Rice should have realized that when a gang showed up with R.P.G.’s and mortars in a place known as a hotbed of Al Qaeda sympathizers and Islamic extremist training camps, it was not anger over a movie. She should have been savvy enough to wonder why the wily Hillary was avoiding the talk shows.” “The president’s protecting a diplomatic damsel in distress made Rice look more vulnerable, when her reason for doing those shows in the first place was to look more venerable,” Dowd concludes.

For Rice’s supporters to cry foul over Republican objections as racist is off the mark. It should be in their interest that Obama nominates someone equally capable as Clinton to be the face of America’s outreach to the world. To expect anything less would be unfortunate.