President Barack Obama has vigorously defended the honour of his UN ambassador, Susan Rice. Will he now nominate her as his Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton steps down?
In his first post-election press conference last Wednesday, Obama said it was “outrageous” to “besmirch her reputation” by suggesting she deliberately misled voters about the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including the ambassador, dead.
Rice was chosen to deliver the administration’s talking points on the Sunday morning television talk shows following the attack. The script had her say that the attack at that point appeared primarily to have been a spontaneous reaction to the US refusal to suppress a movie offensive to Islam.
This, it is now clear, did not fully reflect what the White House was hearing either from its intelligence services or from the Libyan authorities, both of whom had concluded the attack was premeditated by suspected Al Qaeda affiliates.
On Friday, General David Petraeus who was CIA director at the time but whose resignation Obama accepted when it emerged he had been sleeping with his biographer, told Congress the CIA had included references to Al Qaeda in its version of the talking points but that these were edited out.
Rice’s critics, the loudest of whom are Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, seem to want to believe that she was complicit in an election season cover-up to preserve the notion that under Obama’s leadership the US was rendering Al Qaeda a negligible threat.
Her supporters, including most vociferously the president himself, contend she was simply delivering mail for her boss after Secretary of State Clinton begged off saying she was too drained from the events of the week to do the job herself.
Rice, they say, was not involved in the drafting of the talking points and if mentions of Al Qaeda were excised, the motive was to protect intelligence sources, not deceive.
Wherever the truth lies, the thought of Rice replacing Clinton is stirring passions, pro and con, both in Washington and further afield. Her principal rival is said to be Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but unnamed White House officials are putting it about that Rice is the front runner.
The contest is being waged, naturally, in the media, and there, at least, Rice seems to be losing ground. As people with strong personalities and unconcealed ambition are wont to do, she has made plenty of anonymously talkative enemies since coming to Washington to work in President Clinton’s White House and later as his Assistant Secretary of State for Africa.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank both were batting for the opposition in Sunday’s papers. “Is Rice Cooked?” Dowd asked. Very much so, thought Milbank. “There likely aren’t enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her.”
Rice was on the White House National Security Council at the time of the Rwandan genocide. Dowd teased out a parallel between Rice’s actions then and now.
Then, she argued for playing down the scale of the Rwanda killing lest the Clinton administration’s reluctance to get involved weaken Democrats’ prospects in the 1994 midterm elections. Now, she was for playing down what she must have known was likely Al Qaeda involvement in the Benghazi attack lest it be fodder for Mitt Romney.
Milbank wrote of Rice “she can be a most un-diplomatic diplomat”, a view evidently shared by the anonymous Russian official quoted in the Moscow business daily Kommersant calling her “too ambitious and aggressive” and warning that US-Russian relations would suffer were she to get the nod.
During her time as the State Department’s top Africanist, Milbank reported, “she appalled colleagues by flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke (then engaged in brokering peace in the former Yugoslavia) during a meeting with senior staff … colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults.”
Michael Hirsh, writing in the highly respected National Journal, thought Benghazi “may be the least of (Rice’s) problems.” He expects questions to be raised about her relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and her reasons for wanting to delay publication of a UN report concluding that his government was backing the M 23 rebel movement in the eastern DRC.
On one of his visits to Washington for sessions of the now-defunct US-South Africa Binational Commission, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was asked at a press conference to comment on reports that he and Assistant Secretary Rice were not hitting it off. “No,” he replied, “I admire her somewhat.”