Should Susan Rice be the next secretary of state?

Should Susan Rice be the next secretary of state?

Should Susan Rice be America’s next secretary of state? That’s not my decision, of course, and it’s not yours either, unless you happen to be President Obama or a member of the Senate. But I think the recent debate on her possible nomination has missed the real issue.

Thus far, the debate has focused almost entirely on Rice’s appearances on five Sunday talk shows back on September 16, where she offered a vigorous defense of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi incident. Although some of her statements turned out to be inaccurate, it is now clear that she was dutifully repeating the talking points that she had been given. No scandal there; that’s what loyal subordinates do. 

The harshest thing one might say about Rice’s performance in these shows is that she might have hedged or qualified her remarks more than she did. Even so, she did say — repeatedly — that her comments were based on the "best information" available at the time, and she made it clear that the investigation into these events was still proceeding and that a "definitive" account was not yet ready. But the overall impression she left was one of certainty rather than doubt, and this left her at least somewhat vulnerable to the (false) charge that she had misled her interviewers and the viewing public.

So the Benghazi business offers no basis to oppose Rice’s appointment, and even a critic like Sen. Lindsay Graham now seems to agree. My concern is rather different: I fear that unlike Hillary Clinton, Rice is too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president’s patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State. As a result, her appointment will reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.

Recall that when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she had been First Lady for eight years, a U.S. Senator, and a presidential candidate who came close to winning her party’s nomination. She had independent stature of her own, which is why Obama had to accommodate a number of her personnel requests in order to get her to take the job. And some of those appointments involved people with strong personalities and policy views of their own. Moreover, although Clinton proved to be a terrific team player, her independent stature allowed her to speak freely and enhanced her policy clout. Obama could never entirely ignore Clinton’s views, because she could go public with her disagreements or even threaten to resign if she were adamantly opposed to a particular initiative. That she never did so (as far as we know) shows that Obama understood this situation from the very beginning.

Rice, by contrast, has no independent power base. She did serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton administration (to no great distinction), but signed up early with Obama and was a key foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign. She obviously has Obama’s confidence, but her current ascendancy depends solely on the president’s backing. Maintaining his personal support will be critical to her effectiveness, which makes her much less likely to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear or that cut against the thrust of existing policy. Although Rice has the reputation of being a forceful advocate with sharp elbows, her relationship to the president runs the risk of making her more of a courtier than a counselor. And if she stumbles, Obama will be blamed for having pushed her appointment in the face of skeptics.

To be sure, an administration at war with itself wouldn’t be very effective, and one could argue that a unified team will do a better job than one where there’s lots of backbiting. It’s a question of balance, and my sense is that the administration’s world-view is getting narrower over time. Realists like Robert Gates have been gone for some time, and Clinton will be gone soon. James Jones left the NSC years ago, and independent thinkers like the late Richard Holbrooke are no longer with us. Instead of vigorous and creative debate and a willingness to rethink past decisions or priorities, we’re likely to get groupthink and a tendency to circle the wagons and defend past decisions (just as Rice did on those TV shows). 

The narrowing of world-views is a familiar second-term phenomenon, as the first team leaves the stage and the survivors are those who have managed to adapt themselves to the emerging policy consensus and maintain their standing with the president himself. Instead of the "team of rivals" that people saw at the beginning of his presidency, what we have instead is a cocoon of confidantes. The only thing that might introduce some fresh foreign policy thinking into the Obama White House is a forceful set of Cabinet officials with their own power bases, but that’s not what Rice is likely to provide at State. Obama already knows what she thinks, after all.

If Obama does nominate her and I were a Senator, however, I’d vote to confirm. Not with great enthusiasm or with high expectations, but there’s nothing in the record to warrant rejection. And who knows? Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.