WASHINGTON – President Obama buoyed Susan Rice’s hopes for becoming the next U.S. secretary of state last week, putting her Republican critics — including Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham — on notice that he will not be deterred by their “outrageous” threats to block her nomination over comments she gave on the Sunday morning talk shows following the Benghazi attack.
“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,” Obama said.
But Rice’s potential nomination has set off a frenzy of commentary on her qualifications for the job, and not only from Republicans.
Rice got some sharp jabs from more liberal commentators, including Slate’s Fred Kaplan and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who argued that Rice should be denied the top diplomatic assignment, not because of Benghazi, but for her undiplomatic personality.
Democrats have rallied to Rice’s defense, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein accusing Republicans of engaging in character assassination; a group of House Democrats contended that Rice is the target of a racist and sexist campaign.
Even a prominent Republican commentator, Robert Kagan, said it’s time for Republicans to move on.
“The idea that Rice should be disqualified because of statements she made on television in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, strikes me as unfair,” Kagan wrote in the Washington Post.
“I haven’t seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice’s statements were part of a cover-up to hide a terrorist attack.”
Lost in the debate about Benghazi is the fact that Rice’s Sunday morning briefing provided little insight into what Rice has actually done during her four years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in her previous stint as senior national security aide in President Bill Clinton’s White House, or as his assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
So, here are some things you need to know about Susan Rice in case she becomes America’s next top diplomat.
WHY BENGHAZI HASN’T STUCK
The most damning lapse in the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi appears to be the State Department’s failure to respond to repeated requests from the ground for increased security.
By all accounts, Rice does not bear personal responsibility for those decisions, which look particularly ill-considered after the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
But Republicans have nonetheless questioned her fitness to serve as the top U.S. diplomat on the grounds that she intentionally spun the American public in a series of Sunday interviews, saying the attack was likely a spontaneous response to the broadcast of an Internet video portraying the Prophet Muhammad in a negative light.
It may very well be determined that Rice spun her presentation to emphasize the supposedly spontaneous nature of the attack, and downplayed a possible role for al Qaida, though she was careful enough to leave open all possibilities in her remarks.
But there is no evidence that she lied, and the administration has leaked an intelligence talking note that is consistent with her televised remarks. So, unless evidence emerges that demonstrates she had good reason to question the accuracy of those talking notes, the Republican attack on Rice will come across as unfairly partisan.
RICE, THE INTERVENTIONIST
Rice’s reputation as a proponent of humanitarian intervention stems from a 2006 op-ed she wrote with former U.S. national security adviser Anthony Lake and the late Rep. Donald Payne, D-New Jersey, which called for air strikes against Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets to compel Sudan to allow international peacekeepers into Darfur.
In Libya, Rice emerged as a principal proponent of the NATO-led air campaign that toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s government. But don’t bet on Rice pressing for a U.S. invasion of Syria if she is appointed secretary of state.
As U.N. ambassador she has argued against U.S. military involvement in Syria, which possesses a far more powerful military, including the region’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems and chemical weapons.
‘BULLDOZER’ WHO CAN CHARM
Sen. John F. Kerry, Rice’s key rival for America’s top diplomatic post, looks and bears himself like a mid-20th century movie star version of a U.S. secretary of state: he’s tall, patrician and courtly. Rice is none of those things, but she stands a chance of further changing the nation’s view of what an U.S. secretary of state looks and sounds like in the 21st century.
Rice, who had a privileged upbringing in Washington, appears comfortable in the role of a superpower envoy, forcing her will on America’s less powerful friends and enemies. But she can also do gracious and charming, heading out first to the dance floor at a U.N. press ball.
Her default in the Security Council, though, is sharp-elbowed. Rice’s colleagues have described her variously as the “bulldozer” and the “headmistress,” a dominating personality who can exhibit great forcefulness in making her case. One Security Council ambassador said “her favorite word is bull(bleep).”
The Republicans have portrayed Rice as insufficiently supportive of Israel at the United Nations. This charge falls a bit flat when you consider the lengths to which Rice has gone to shield Israel from prosecution for war crimes for its conduct in the 2008-2009 war.
A Wikileaks cable details how Rice browbeat U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon into rejecting a proposal by his own envoy, Ian Martin, to open an investigation into crimes against humanity by both sides in the conflict.
Her action in defense of Israel has subjected her to intensive criticism from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch.
THE M23 PROBLEM
The Republicans have Benghazi. Human rights advocates have the M23. A former U.S. assistant secretary of state under the Clinton administration, Rice has long-standing and close relations with many African leaders, notably President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan general who led the armed insurgency that ended the genocide in 1994.
Kagame’s government has been a friend of Washington since, but it’s also been the target of U.N. investigations claiming it carried out mass reprisal killings in Rwanda and neighboring Eastern Congo.
An independent panel, set up by the Security Council to monitor violations of a U.N. arms embargo in eastern Congo, concluded in a damning report this summer that the Rwanda military is sponsoring an armed mutiny, by a group calling itself M23, that is seeking to seize control of a huge swath of eastern Congo.