The very public fight over Susan Rice’s honor

Richard Grenell, the Bush administration’s spokesman at the United Nations, and Mark Kornblau, his Democratic successor, have taken to the blogosphere in an highly acriminous public fight over the honor and performance of Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The clash of the Americans began earlier this month when Grenell, a ...

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STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Grenell, the Bush administration's spokesman at the United Nations, and Mark Kornblau, his Democratic successor, have taken to the blogosphere in an highly acriminous public fight over the honor and performance of Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The clash of the Americans began earlier this month when Grenell, a frequent critic of the United Nations, launched a personal attack against Rice in The Huffington Post, describing her as an absentee ambassador who is "wildly inattentive" to matters before the U.N. and "a weak negotiator" for America who is "all too willing to avoid confrontation." Grenell also faulted Rice, who spent much of January in Washington tending to ill parents, for not leading the U.S. relief effort in Haiti from U.N. headquarters.

Kornblau fired back on the same site. "My boss may be a lot of things. But battle-shy isn't one of them." Kornblau wrote that Rice has used the United Nations to make "Americans safer," saying that she has pushed through a tough sanctions resolution against North Korea and contributed to Iran's isolation. "On the upside, I'd long thought of Grenell as a fairly predictable critic of the U.N. It's weird to see him carping at my boss for allegedly being insufficiently ardent about the U.N. -- but I'm glad to see he's come around to our view of the place."

Richard Grenell, the Bush administration’s spokesman at the United Nations, and Mark Kornblau, his Democratic successor, have taken to the blogosphere in an highly acriminous public fight over the honor and performance of Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The clash of the Americans began earlier this month when Grenell, a frequent critic of the United Nations, launched a personal attack against Rice in The Huffington Post, describing her as an absentee ambassador who is "wildly inattentive" to matters before the U.N. and "a weak negotiator" for America who is "all too willing to avoid confrontation." Grenell also faulted Rice, who spent much of January in Washington tending to ill parents, for not leading the U.S. relief effort in Haiti from U.N. headquarters.

Kornblau fired back on the same site. "My boss may be a lot of things. But battle-shy isn’t one of them." Kornblau wrote that Rice has used the United Nations to make "Americans safer," saying that she has pushed through a tough sanctions resolution against North Korea and contributed to Iran’s isolation. "On the upside, I’d long thought of Grenell as a fairly predictable critic of the U.N. It’s weird to see him carping at my boss for allegedly being insufficiently ardent about the U.N. — but I’m glad to see he’s come around to our view of the place."

The spectacle of two American spokesmen, whose official role involves, among other responsibilities, regularly scolding reporters for publishing stories they view as unfair, has proven an irresistible spectator sport for the U.N. press corps, who have followed the feud with glee.

A Reuters blog asked is Susan Rice "too cuddly." Benny Avni, writing an opinion piece in the New York Post, noted "some U.N. diplomats are starting to wonder: Does Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador, really care much about the United Nations?"

U.N. Dispatch, a pro-U.N. blog, came to Rice’s defense, arguing that Rice’s responsibility as a cabinet member requires her to spend more time in Washington than her Republican predecessors, who didn’t have cabinet rank. Her close personal ties to President Obama, who also happens to live in Washington, is a plus for the United Nations.

Grenell based his assessment of Rice’s record on two points. First, Rice has been spending too much of her time in Washington, where her family lives and where she attends Cabinet-level meetings. He also cited a report by what he called the "uber-serious" online publication The Security Council Report, which showed a dramatic decline in U.N. Security Council activity during Rice’s first year.

The report shows that U.N. Security Council activity plummeted in 2009 to levels not seen since 1991, when the close of the Cold War opened an era of intensive U.N. activity. For instance, last year the number of Security Concil decicions declined by 26 percent, from 113 to 83, compared with 2008.

The study shows a particular decline in council reactions to crises in Sudan and Somalia, where the Bush administration struggled in its final months to set up a U.N. peacekeeping mission. That decision was opposed by the U.N.’s peacekeeping department and Rice, who believed there was no peace to keep there. The Security Council has yet to adopt a sanctions resolution on Iran, though the U.S. and its European allies are preparing to introduce a sanctions resolution soon.

The report notes that the trend coincides with the preferences of Security Council members China and Russia, who consistently argue for reducing the council’s work load because they say, it has been "overactive" in recent years and responds too readily to every crisis that erupts in the world.

The study does not provide a definitive explanation for the decline, but suggests it may partially reflect a historical drop in activity by a new U.S. administration preoccupied with staffing up its mission, and which has a preference for engaging countries bilaterally. It also suggested that the global financial crisis sapped governments’ energy to pursue costly new initiatives.

Kornblau counters that Grenell "misrepresents" the report’s findings, noting that it concludes "more is not necessarily better." He said "the point is to get results, not rack up meaningless statistics."

As for Rice, she has insisted that she hasn’t had time to read Grenell’s posting. But she has explained her need to spend time in Washington. "There’s an understanding among my [UN] colleagues that I am speaking authoritatively as one of the president’s senior advisers — and I think that very much enhances our ability to get things done."

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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