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In defense of Susan Rice

Op-Ed

The Benghazi matter should not disqualify her from confirmation as President Obama's next secretary of State.

November 29, 2012|By Michael O'Hanlon
  • U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice listens, at right, as President Barack Obama speaks before a meeting with his cabinet at the White House in Washington.
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice listens, at right, as President Barack Obama… (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated…)

Is U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice an appropriate choice as President Obama's second-term secretary of State?

Nearly 100 House Republicans have come out against Rice, joining several prominent GOP senators. Meetings on Capitol Hill this week appear not to have helped her cause with them. They consider her either untrustworthy or incompetent, insinuating that she is too much of a partisan to represent the country as a whole on the world stage. But the Republicans should relent in their opposition.

I am no blind supporter of Rice. She is my friend and former colleague at the Brookings Institution, but I advised Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2007-08 primary campaign, while Rice co-led the Obama foreign policy team, and I supported the surge in Iraq, while Rice opposed it. Despite these battle scars, I consider Rice a person of high integrity and intelligence; she has a strong work ethic and a clear commitment to this country's security. There may be a valid debate as to whether Rice, or Sen. John F. Kerry, or someone else (Adm. Michael G. Mullen and another Clinton come to mind) should succeed Clinton as the nation's next top diplomat. But Rice is a solid candidate and would be a fine secretary of State.

The opposition to Rice begins with the matter of Benghazi. Her Sunday talk-show statements about what happened when Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11 were mistaken but far from unreasonable. Early on, some in the intelligence community suspected a spontaneous demonstration was the starting point for the situation. Five days later, more was known: The attack was preplanned. Rice qualified her statements, but the emphasis was wrong. Still, no evidence has been presented that her comments were mendacious.

There is a broader criticism of Rice, as well. Some view her as untried, untested, too young or too much of an Obama loyalist rather than an independent thinker. Her record deserves a more careful look.

After serving on the Clinton administration's National Security Council and at the State Department, Rice was at Brookings from 2002 through 2008, and her published work is still available. It shows that she was creative, forceful and in fact ahead of either party in many of her views.

For example, in 2004 and early 2005, long before then-Sen. Obama made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy vision, Rice wrote important opinion pieces calling for direct talks with regimes like Iran or North Korea. This was a reasonable way to change the tone of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" concept, which had proved unproductive for handling these problem states. Yet anyone who believes this reflected naivete in her thinking about such rogue states need only witness the way she has orchestrated campaigns of pressure and sanctions against both in her current job.

It is also important to put Benghazi in perspective, beyond the issue of what was said on a talk show. It was a tragedy, to be sure, and the administration's State Department needs to learn lessons about how to reduce the risk of similar debacles in the future. But we must not exaggerate the harm done to American interests here. The challenges in Libya remain largely as they were before the killings; the importance of Libya to the broader Middle East remains limited in scale in any case. This is not the issue on which the region or the world will turn in the months and years ahead.

Contrast that situation with another impressive young leader named Rice, the former secretary of State under Bush. When Condoleezza Rice's name was considered by Congress in 2005, Democrats could have made the case that as national security advisor, she had led a broken policy process that left a huge mess in Iraq and that disqualified her from a Cabinet-level rank.

It was not simply that the Iraq war was, in some eyes, a mistake. It was that the United States had no clear single policy that established what we sought in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's demise or what tools we were prepared to employ to achieve it. We had no real plan or capacity to stabilize the country after Hussein's downfall, and chaos as well as insurrection ensued.

The poor political and military planning for the Iraq war was primarily due to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his supporters. But Rice's job as national security advisor was to be sure that inconsistencies were identified and competing views reconciled. She failed to do this, with much weightier consequences for the country than Benghazi will ever cause. She was also part of public presentations on Hussein's weapons of mass destruction that later proved faulty. Yet the Senate rightly confirmed her as Bush's secretary of State, recognizing that many others shared the blame for these problems, and giving her a chance to learn from her mistakes and improve -- which in fact she did in her next post.

The lesson here is clear: If the president decides he so wishes it, Susan Rice deserves a promotion too, and the Senate should confirm her.

Michael O'Hanlon is the director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

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