The President should announce his intention to nominate Susan Rice as the next Secretary of State, or move on.
By Timothy Stafford
It is abundantly clear that Dr. Susan Rice is the President’s first choice to be the next Secretary of State. The newly re-elected President publicly defended his UN Ambassador at his first post-election press conference. Moreover, well placed comments by administration officials in a Washington Post article all but confirmed that the man thought to be her most serious rival for the post, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, is under consideration for the position of Secretary of Defense. If the President has made up his mind, why has he yet to make clear his intention to submit her nomination to the Senate?
Rice’s woes stem from the September 11th attack in Benghazi, which killed the United State’s Ambassador to Libya. The following weekend, Rice was dispatched to present the administration’s position on a host of television shows. In doing so she made quite clear that the origins of the incident lay in the anti-Islamic You Tube film trailer that had prompted protests across the Muslim world. Subsequent investigations revealed that it was known well before then that the attack was a deliberate, planned operation, and not the result of actions undertaken by a rowdy mob carried away by anger.
On the face of it, Rice’s error ought not constitute a disqualifying offense. Across the world, junior staffers are frequently thrown to the press to defend positions they have been asked to defend by more senior officials. An excruciating example of this can be witnessed by recalling Chloe Smith’s appearance on Newsnight earlier this year. The problem for Rice is that her comments fit into a pre-existing dynamic that has engendered much Republican opposition, namely the administration’s determination to reduce using the term ‘terrorism’ in public documents, speeches and statements. Attorney-General Eric Holder’s Congressional appearances are a testament to the the fervency with which administration officials go to avoid the use of language they consider inflammatory. Moreover, during the President’s first term, Secretary of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano issued new guidance which instructed officials to refer to terrorist attacks as ‘man-caused disasters’.Viewed through the lens of Republican opposition to the administration’s public diplomacy campaign, Rice’s suggestion that Benghazi was not the result of a co-ordinated attack looks like a conspiracy to downplay acts of violence against Americans, rather than a slip of the tongue. At least, that is the view in some quarters of Capitol Hill, where Senators McCain, Graham and Ayotte have taken the lead in resisting the prospect of Rice’s promotion.
Does Rice’s one slip really matter? Perhaps not. Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf argues that the President can nominate whoever he chooses, while Robert Kagan suggests that the stakes are too high for the US to be deprived of the best person for the job. Both views are persuasive. However something must be done soon, for the incessant media coverage is processing from drama to farce. This week Rice visited Capitol Hill, and met the aforementioned Senators to, put bluntly, explain herself. Such visits are more often the preserve of those who have already been nominated, rather than those seeking to prove their worth. The visit only reinforces the notion that Rice is the preferred choice to run the State Department, and that the White House is making an effort to smooth things before the President nominates her. If that is the strategy then its not working. Rice’s visit was quickly followed by a press conference at which Senators Graham and Ayottee outlined their continued concerns.
Things have now reached a tipping point. Either the President must decide to battle for Rice’s nomination, or quickly move on to considering different candidates. The White House can’t have it both ways, for failing to make a decision on Rice’s future – one way or the other – will only damage the conduct of American foreign policy in the coming four years. James Baker once noted that a Secretary of State is at his or her strongest when they are seen as an unquestioned proxy for the President. Only a representative who can speak for the President, and be seen to do so by foreign governments, can hope to carry any weight. No one knew this better than Baker, whose lifelong relationship with Bush added to his stature. Compare that to the sorry experience of Colin Powell, who was continually handicapped by the widespread view that Messers Cheney and Rumsfeld carried greater clout on matters of foreign policy. The worry should not be that Rice will ultimately win a bruising confirmation battle. The populism of the American political scene makes the prospect of politics ‘stopping at the waters age’ now seem like a quaint anachronism. What ought to concern the administration is the prospect of it being represented overseas by a figure known the world over to have been the President’s second choice. Imagine the prospect of officials in Beijing whispering to Xi Jinping that he need not worry himself with the concerns raised by Secretary Kerry because he doesn’t really speak for the President. One cannot conduct serious diplomacy in such a scenario.
The White House should therefore act, and act swiftly. Whether Rice is the preferred choice of the President is no longer relevant. What matters is whether she is his nominee. The time has come for the President to make his views on that matter clear.
Timothy Stafford is an Associate Fellow with the Henry Jackson Society