The Republican assault on Susan Rice is a fabricated scandal, attacking her for repeating CIA talking points, almost verbatim, to explain the Benghazi attacks. The U.N. ambassador’s version, even with its omissions, may turn out to be closer to the truth than some of the inflammatory GOP rhetoric.
But just because Rice is being unfairly pilloried, this doesn’t mean she would be a good secretary of state. And it’s a close call on the merits: Given her friendship with President Obama, she would be uniquely able to speak as his emissary. But she would also carry some baggage — not least from the political fight that would follow her nomination.
Rice would be a high-risk, high- reward nominee for secretary of state. She would represent a gambler’s choice for Obama, a sign that his second term really would be different from the cautious style of the first. Her appointment would signal that Obama will play a stronger personal role in foreign policy and that he’s ready to break some crockery to get things done.
Rice’s problem, to be blunt, is that some people don’t like her. They find her abrasive, self-promoting, mercurial. Some have argued that this critique is sexist, but Rice’s defects are similar to those of the abrasive, self-promoting Richard Holbrooke, an immensely talented diplomat who never became secretary of state.
Given the political inflammation over Rice, the White House should let the issue cool for a week or two: Wait for the official investigation of Benghazi, which will make Rice’s television statements look better and show that they were a blip in the tragedy of what happened. Wait for Obama to assemble a full national security team in which Rice would be a key player, rather than a lone wolf. Wait for the president to consider if he wants a special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks (did anyone say Bill Clinton?) to assist the secretary of state.
If State Department officials could select their own boss, they would probably pick Sen. John Kerry. He presents himself (as has Hillary Clinton) in the practiced, reassuring way that a seasoned politician can. And to a surprising extent, Kerry thinks outside the box. He was early to understand the importance of engaging America’s adversaries in Iran, Syria and even Hamas. He has operated as Obama’s private emissary in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and has been loyal and discreet.
But picking a secretary of state isn’t anyone’s choice but the president’s (with the “advice and consent” of the Senate). And if Obama concludes after a period of reflection that he wants to roll the dice with Rice — and gain the potential rewards — then he should go for it. She probably wouldn’t be a bad secretary, and she might be an outstanding one.
To get a sense of Rice’s strengths and weaknesses, I talked last week to many people who worked for her at the United Nations and alongside her in the administration. The pluses far outweigh the minuses, but I’ll offer a selection of both.
Rice’s strengths are that she’s smart, strategic and forthright. She has been a deft negotiator at the United Nations, with a subtle sense of the Chinese and Russians, and perhaps even played them against each other on occasion. She strengthened Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea. And for all her reputation as a tough boss, her staff generally likes her, especially the younger members.
Rice’s biggest advantage is her closeness to the president. She understands his vision of a changing world better than anyone else in government. Her instincts match his on the Arab revolutions, the need to engage Iran, the importance of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. She understood that her job at the United Nations was to reset America’s relations with the world, after the George W. Bush years, and she did it.
The negatives with Rice are mostly matters of style. She’s pushy and profane and sometimes seems to shoot from the hip (a mistaken impression, since she, like the president, tends to read all the briefing papers). She was standoffish toward Hillary Clinton, prizing her special relationship with Obama and her Cabinet status. That offended some people.
Rice did two things at the United Nations that demonstrated her “A” game. First, she was tough enough to stand up against Russia’s sometimes bullying diplomats. Second, she provided a secret back channel for communicating urgent messages with Iran. As secretary, Rice would be Obama’s young, dynamic face to the world and a good, if also risky, choice.