Barack Obama was right to defend Susan Rice from the GOP attacks. She's got the chops to be secretary of state.
- By Sean KaySean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government, director of the Arneson Institute of Practical Politics at Ohio Wesleyan University, and Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. He is the author of Celtic Revival? The Rise, Fall, and Renewal of Global Ireland.
In his first press conference since the election, on November 14, President Barack Obama made a forceful defense of his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who increasingly appears to be the favored candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The public display of support caught some analysts by surprise, both because they assumed the position was likely to go to someone else — presumably Sen. John Kerry — and because they thought her role in the Benghazi tragedy, repeating administration talking points that later turned out to be false, would make Senate confirmation extremely difficult.
But by any reasonable measure — qualifications, record, and capacity to do the job effectively — the case for Susan Rice is strong. It is therefore appropriate that President Obama stood by his ambassador — both in the second presidential debate and in his news conference.
Yesterday, the president was clear: "I don’t think there’s any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed, that’s a problem, and we’ve got to get to the bottom of it and there needs to be accountability. We’ve got to bring those who carried it out to justice. They won’t get any debate from me on that," he said. "But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me." But a number of Republicans have gone after her nonetheless. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said in response, he has "no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle."
Despite Graham’s and others’ best efforts to use Rice as a billiard ball to keep the Benghazi story alive, there is no evidence that she is "up to her eyeballs" in anything — let alone the Benghazi fiasco, which she had virtually nothing to do with. What we do know, is that she did precisely what any U.N. ambassador is supposed to do: convey the administration’s position based on the information that is available at the time.
There is no doubt that the attacks in Benghazi occurred against the backdrop of the inflammatory anti-Muslim video, which had global resonance and required a global response — appropriate for the U.N. ambassador. Moreover, her specific comments on "Face the Nation" and other Sunday talk shows were based on an intelligence timeline that had been provided to her by the administration and which reflected what was known at the time. As the Washington Post reported on Oct. 19, Rice’s talking points had actually been prepared for the House Intelligence Committee, which evidently found them credible enough.
If anything, Rice and the intelligence community might be faulted for having to go public with what was a tentative intelligence analysis. Perhaps the administration can be faulted for putting anyone on the national talk shows to discuss the attack while the intelligence was itself evolving — seemingly as they spoke. But if they hadn’t, the outcry would have been in the other direction: people would have been demanding to know why the administration wasn’t sharing all the information it had.
As the president said yesterday: "[F]or them to go after the U.N ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous." Whether or not Obama selects Rice as his next secretary of state (and, for the record, he said that he hadn’t made a determination yet), it is reassuring to see a commander-in-chief stand up for his representative at the United Nations and for the professionals in the intelligence community working with the best information they had.
Republican senators, for their part, shouldn’t judge any highly qualified potential nominee before even listening to the case for their selection. The tradition of deference to presidents as they select their cabinets is an important one — as is the practice of investigation, and advice and consent. First and foremost, that process should be geared toward determining if Rice is qualified to be secretary of state. No question, Susan Rice’s record has plenty of room for serious questions and opportunities for her to explain. But to assert even before a nominee is announced that the are "unqualified" — as Sen. John McCain did this week — is not becoming of the great traditions of the Senate.
The answer to this is a resounding "yes": Rice’s distinguished diplomatic career includes a stint on the National Security Council in the 1990s; assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1997-2001), where she oversaw the management of 43 U.S. embassies and 5,000 Foreign Service personnel; and eight years as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Since 2009, the former Rhodes Scholar and management consultant has also served effectively as ambassador to the United Nations — a position previously held by President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke — who also would have been a strong contender for this position. On paper, then, Rice is as at least as qualified for the position as most of her recent would-be predecessors.
Moreover, Rice has already proved that she is a player on the global stage. She was largely responsible for building international consensus around the U.N. resolutions that enabled the Libyan intervention. Rice has also rallied global support for strong and sustained pressure on Iran, and has taken on Russia over the Syrian crisis, though her success in Libya may have made failure in Syria inevitable. To this point, she recently indicated a balance between interventionist ideals — which she successfully achieved in helping to rally the U.N. Security Council to pass essential resolutions that paved the way for the end of the Qaddafi regime in Libva — and realism, stating to the Foreign Policy on September 25 of Syria that: "I’m not of the view that this is a circumstance in which external military intervention is wise for the United States or others," she said. "I don’t think that [the Responsibility to Protect] was ever a cookie-cutter response that was going to automatically be implemented everywhere things went badly."
If selected, Rice would provide both continuity in a critical moment of transition and the eyes of a foreign policy practitioner who came of age in an era of new global challenges. Crucially, Rice has the ear of the president — and of other world leaders through her work at the United Nations.
While other likely candidates are equally credentialed and would likely do the job well, it is crucial that the secretary of state be immediately understood when engaging in public and private diplomacy overseas as someone that has a direct line to the president. History tells us that when the secretary of state is not in the immediate decision-making loop, this can make it more difficult to ensure the priority of diplomatic approaches to asserting the national interest. This is not to say other nominees would not enjoy this advantage — but it is one that Rice would begin with from day one. Moreover, because of that access, she would also be in a strong position to represent the interest of the Foreign Service when interacting with other key agencies of government. She would thus be well-equipped to return America’s diplomatic corps to its proper role after a decade in which military influence dominated decision-making.
Of course, Obama may yet select a wildcard candidate as his next secretary of state. And there remains a strong case to be made for other serious candidates for this position — particularly Sen. John Kerry — all of whom would serve America with distinction. But Rice merits the respect that her service and qualifications deserve and it is to Obama’s credit that he has stood by her and recognized her achievements. It is entirely appropriate that her name is under serious consideration.