November 22, 2012

Potential top diplomat stirs debate

The U.N. ambassador's possible nomination for secretary of state prompts criticism and praise.

By Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy

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.

Susan Rice
click image to enlarge

Susan Rice has supported U.S. military involvement, but not in Syria.

The Associated Press

DAUGHTER OF A PORTLAND NATIVE

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is the daughter of Lois Dickson Rice, a noteworthy Maine native who grew up on Portland's Munjoy Hill.

Susan Rice often visits Maine, where the family has a summer home in Lincolnville.

She has a bachelor's degree in history from Stanford University, and a master's degree and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship.

Her father is Emmett J. Rice, a retired senior vice president at the National Bank of Washington and a former governor of the Federal Reserve. She and her husband, Ian Cameron, have two children.

Rice, who grew up in Washington, D.C., spoke at Portland's Martin Luther King Day breakfast in 2008. She noted the city's growing diversity and recalled seeing few black families when she visited her grandparents as a child.

"I never dreamed I'd see a room this diverse in Maine," she said.

Rice recalled that her grandparents, David and Mary Dickson, taught their children to work hard, strive for excellence and "never let race be an obstacle or an excuse."

David Dickson came to Portland from Jamaica in 1911, according to newspaper accounts. The next year, he got a job as a janitor at Cressey & Allen, a company on Congress Street that sold sheet music and instruments.

He married Mary Daly, also from Jamaica. She was named Maine State Mother of the Year in 1950.

On his janitor's salary, the Dicksons raised five children in Portland's Munjoy Hill neighborhood. The four eldest, all boys, graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick; two became physicians, one became an optometrist and one became a college president.

The youngest of the five, Rice's mother Lois, was valedictorian of Portland High School in 1950 and class president of Radcliffe College in 1954.

– From staff reports

"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.

(Continued on page 2)

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