Will he or won’t he? Only President Barack Obama knows for sure, but it certainly looks as if he’s ready to take on Senate Republicans and nominate Susan Rice, ambassador to the United Nations, as his next secretary of state. Is it worth the bluster and opposition that is sure to follow? At this point, I think not.
I say that not because Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina attacked Rice and her potential candidacy for that office. In fact, the specter of these two Senate powerhouses threatening to filibuster her nomination before the president has sent her name to Capitol Hill came off as bullying and overbearing. It made me feel sorry for her, initially.
The two men are on a crusade over the Benghazi debacle; they want to downgrade public opinion on the Obama administration’s handling of the bombing of our consulate there. They are relentlessly politicizing the deaths of four State Department personnel, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. They want to get to the bottom of why our small, remote consulate outpost didn’t have a U.S. Marine security guard detachment. Fair enough. But the truth is such outposts are rarely given this type of high-level security. Ambassadors in conflict zones know the risks involved when they travel to them.
Pounding Rice for mischaracterizing the attack on two Sunday morning talk shows as not related to terrorism (which, it turns out, it was) seems like two elephants stomping on one ant. It is more than a mite of overkill.
The real problem with Rice is her reputation. I do not think we want a person prone to nasty outbreaks serving as secretary of state, our diplomat-in-chief. In a town where all politicians have enemies and grudges aplenty, Rice is particularly well equipped in this unfortunate regard. She has, for example, been described as “famously” raising her middle finger at American diplomat Richard Holbrooke while she was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. This took place at a meeting that staffers described as particularly stormy and appalling. Imagine the consequences if she similarly lost control at international meetings or diplomatic sessions. They could be horrible.
A column by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recounts many similar instances. He says Rice was among the first former Clinton administration staffers to defect from Hillary Clinton to the Obama campaign in the 2008 Democratic primary. She criticized Clinton’s positions on Iran and Iraq as critical judgments that Clinton got wrong.
Milbank also recounts that when McCain ran for president in 2008, Rice mocked McCain’s trip to Iraq (strolling around the market in a flak jacket), called his policies “reckless,” and said “his tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s dangerous.” At least her remarks came from an expert perspective, she having committed similar political sins.
Milbank’s list of Rice’s faux pas goes on and on.
Obama’s recent leap to Rice’s defense shows he is or was putting her at or near the top of his list of candidates for secretary of state. She is said to be close to him and that is an asset. She is clearly scary-smart, and that is an asset as well, as is her impressive record in the field of foreign affairs.
But all that said, none of her glossy credentials would be worth the pain and damage she might inflict on U.S. relations with another country or countries if she repeated one of her outbursts while representing our interests. The president, of all people, should know this.
Bonnie Erbe, host of PBS’ “To the Contrary,” writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.