US: The boiling of Susan Rice

By J Brooks Spector 20 November 2012

US ambassador to the UN, Susan E Rice, has been tabbed Barack Obama’s pick to be the next secretary of state – assuming Hillary Clinton follows through on her rumoured plans to step down after serving during Obama’s first term as president. Who is she and why is she the most likely to become the USA’s second African-American female Secretary of State? By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Until her appearances on six Sunday morning talk shows on 16 September, five days after the fatal attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the smart money was clearly on Rice as the best bet to be the next head of the State Department if Obama won the election in November – and that she would get a fairly easy ride in her Senate confirmation hearings. (Susan Rice is no relation to Condoleezza Rice, in case readers were wondering.)

However, with blowback from those television appearances continuing to roil the waters, things may have become much tougher for Rice. As the New York Times described the circumstances, “Susan E. Rice was playing stand-in on the morning of Sept. 16 when she appeared on five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. 

“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the White House’s logical choice to discuss the chaotic events in the Middle East, but she was drained after a harrowing week, administration officials said. Even if she had not been consoling the families of those who died, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Mrs. Clinton typically steers clear of the Sunday shows. 

“So instead, Ms. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, delivered her now-infamous account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said that the Benghazi siege appeared to have been a spontaneous protest later hijacked by extremists, not a premeditated terrorist attack. Within days, Republicans in Congress were calling for her head.”

Her close adherence to those CIA-prepared talking points – with words that did not highlight the event as a terror attack right from the get-go – has become an increasingly sore point for many influential Senate Republicans. Maybe even enough to stall her nomination – let alone deflect a confirmation of her appointment as the country’s top diplomat.

A brief explanation of the process for cabinet appointments in the US is probably in order here. Unlike a parliamentary democracy, an American president coming into office does not have a shadow cabinet that moves directly into their respective portfolios. Instead, the president selects pretty much anyone he wants to nominate for cabinet positions – as well as numerous other senior appointments – assuming they are reasonably qualified for their respective portfolios. However, his power of appointment is hemmed in by the constitutional provision that all cabinet positions – and many of those other senior jobs – must be confirmed by a formal vote by the Senate. Usually there is a hearing by the respective Senate committee – in the case of a new secretary of state it is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and that is followed by a full Senate vote.

When a president first comes into office, most of his appointments are given a respectful, albeit sometimes guarded, hearing. These hearings are usually followed by confirmations. Sometimes a senator or two or three will vote “nay” to prove a point or put down a marker on future policy decisions, but this is usually not a serious effort to block a nominee. 

A president usually selects a cabinet with an eye towards balancing the sensibilities of key support groups – someone acceptable to the unions for secretary of labour, a westerner for secretary of the interior as someone familiar with federal land use issues, perhaps a big city mayor for secretary of housing and urban affairs. Increasingly, a cabinet also speaks to the multi-ethnic, racial and regional mix of the country – and now gender balance as well to some degree. Then, as a president needs to replace cabinet members who resign to return to their private (usually better paid) careers, or if the president decides someone has worn out their political welcome, that is when the opposition party tries to make things just a bit rougher for the party in power – especially if they can find a sticking point to hone in on for their political purposes. Or just use their opposition to smack the president around a bit over an issue.

And so Barack Obama, as he is about to enter into his second term of office, was poised to carry out a stately, steady, dignified cabinet reshuffle that would replace a few individuals ready to hang up their metaphorical spurs and bring in some new blood for the next four years. For a while, it looked like it was going to be a fairly simple set of equations to solve. Sort out the right replacement for a weary Tim Geithner at Treasury; find the right experienced hand to take over from Leon Panetta at defence now that the incumbent had signalled his desire to retire to his California farm; give Hillary Clinton the space to carry out a ritual withdrawal from State so she could tend her gardens (or prepare to run for the presidency in 2016); and find a way to sort out other positions at Commerce, Justice and a number of less senior jobs.

For many, Susan Rice was the obvious candidate for secretary of state. She’s smart, tough and experienced; she’s already served in a senior position as US Ambassador to the UN (a job that itself carries cabinet status in the US); and, most important of all, she has the respect, trust and deep support of the president. But then came that set of television appearances by Rice that now may upset the applecart. 

When former head of the CIA David Petraeus testified at the recent Senate hearings, poking into what exactly had happened at Benghazi – and who knew what and when – he had insisted that when the talking points had left the CIA, they had explained it was clear the attack was no mere demonstration that magically morphed into an assault with rocket launchers. However, Petraeus also said there were two talking point versions – a classified one and an unclassified one. While the classified one left the CIA with the words “terrorist attack” noted, by the time it was massaged by all the various other intelligence, defence and foreign policy hands that had a crack at them, this definitiveness had somehow been leached out, and a muzzier version is what Susan Rice must have relied upon in her TV appearances.

Predictably, Republican senators and congressmen have insisted that that “somehow” is spelled “White House political interference.” Naturally enough, their Democratic opposites have insisted Rice was just being a good soldier at a time when the intelligence and analysis were still evolving and being refined and clarified. And, if she made any mistake, it was to be too emphatic in her reliance upon these interim judgements as rock-solid determinations of the truth.

At this point, people like Republican Senator John McCain have been saying of the presumptive nominee that he’ll consider her nomination more favourably if she goes on national television – the same programs she did on her earlier fateful appearances – and just admits she was wrong about her initial judgement. For the notably assertive, even prickly Rice, that would be a rather bitter pill for her to have to swallow in public before millions – and maybe one the Obama administration might be unwilling to even have her try to do. Doing this, after all, would signal a serious sense of weakness, coming right after the Democrats’ notable electoral victory earlier this month.  

On the other hand, if the State Department doesn’t go to her, the candidate in second position is now assumed to be Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. The problem there is that if Kerry leaves the Senate, that would open up a seat that would have to be contested anew in a special election, come November 2013. Since semi-Tea Party Republican Scott Brown has just been defeated by the tenacious Elizabeth Warren this past election for the other Senate seat from Massachusetts, he would almost certainly want his old job back.

Although Kerry has made it clear that he would be happy to serve as secretary of state, the question is whether Barack Obama and the Democrats would want to risk making the rather slender Democratic majority in the Senate even slimmer than its current 55/45 split (assuming the two independents in the Senate continue to caucus with Democrats for organisational purposes). One problem is that the Senate has a tradition of allowing unlimited debate on virtually any measure, with a 60-40 vote needed to invoke cloture, or the cutting off of debate and forcing a vote. As it stands already, the Democrats would have to gain five Republicans (and manage somehow to keep all Democratic senators in line) to shut down debate – and that would be rough in almost all cases. Making the magic number needed even one vote higher makes the chances of ending debate that much less likely during any controversial debate.

Alternatively, Obama might go with his current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, or even retired Republican former senator Chuck Hagel, although that name is in circulation as a replacement for Leon Panetta at the Pentagon as well. Another candidate to succeed Mr Panetta is Michèle Flournoy, who has been undersecretary for policy there and who would be the first female secretary of defence.

For the Obama administration, however, David Petraeus’ sudden resignation has further complicated things for them on the appointments front. It now means they must fill the position of CIA director as well – and to do that they will probably want someone who can reach across the aisle to Republicans on this position as well. The reasonably rolling replacement of all these cabinet officials was meant to be a fairly routine matter for Obama’s second term. Now, however, the whole thing is increasingly tangled up with senatorial tempers over Benghazi.

If Obama really wants Rice, he may ultimately succeed and get her appointment through. But it may well cause bruises and build up some unneeded ill will between Capitol Hill and the White House, just as the two branches of government must also address the complexities of the fiscal cliff – along with chances for that elusive grand bargain on the budget, tax changes, raising of the debt ceiling and even the chances for that bargain to include changes in Social Security and Medicare funding mechanisms.

Rice became the Obama administration’s Ambassador to the UN after his victory in 2008. Prior to that, she was a senior advisor on foreign policy during Obama’s run for the White House. Before that she was a Senior Fellow at the Brooking Institution, one of Washington’s most influential think tanks. In the Clinton administration, she served first as Director for International Organisations and Peacekeeping at the National Security Council, then as Senior Director for African Affairs in the National Security Council and then eventually as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. 

Rice studied at Stanford University and then did a Masters and Ph.D.  – as a Rhodes Scholar – at New College, Oxford University. In high school, she was a standout scholar and sharp-elbowed basketball point guard at the fancy but academically demanding National Cathedral School in Washington, DC. Her father was a Federal Reserve Bank director and her mother was an educational policy scholar at think tanks. 

For many observers, her demeanour on the basketball court presaged her take-no-prisoners attitude as a rising bureaucratic star in the international relations arena. Early in her career, however, she had a serious bump in the road with her positions on how to deal with the Rwanda genocide. At the time of that crisis in 1994, Rice reportedly argued, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional midterm] election?” 

The reluctance of the Clinton administration to tackle that crisis affected her views thereafter. She later said of those events, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

Washington observers say the Obama administration – at least for the present – still seems fully determined to move forward with a Rice nomination for the job of secretary of state – once Hillary Clinton actually leaves the State Department, that is. If this happens, it will be an early test of the ability and willingness of Barack Obama to insist his November electoral victory must also translate into yet other victories with an opposition that is at least temporarily off its stride. The coming struggle over Susan Rice, therefore, may well set the scene and the battle lines for other future confrontations with the Republicans in Congress and thus be an early measure of Obama’s tenacity in dealing with the opposition. DM

Read more:

  • Diplomat on the Rise, Suddenly in Turbulence
  • Room at the top: Barack Obama is changing his most senior officials
  • McCain wants Rice to say ‘I was wrong’  (video) (story)
  • President Obama’s foreign policy team hits turbulence

Photo: United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks with Reuters before her remarks on “America, Israel and the United Nations” at the B’Nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida May 10, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper 


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