US President Barack Obama buoyed Susan Rice’s hopes for becoming the next US secretary of state last week, putting her Republican critics — including Senators John McCain, Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham — on notice that he will not be deterred by their “outrageous” threats to block her nomination over controversial comments she gave on the Sunday morning talk shows, following the Benghazi attack. “When they go after the UN Ambassador, apparently because they think she is an easy target, then they have got a problem with me.” 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 because of her generally undiplomatic personality. Even a Russian foreign ministry official anonymously weighed in, telling the Russian daily Kommersant that Rice, who once expressed disgust at Moscow’s protection of the Bashar Al Assad regime in Syria, is “too ambitious and aggressive” and that her appointment would make “it more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.” Riling the Russians would hardly constitute grounds for blocking Rice’s confirmation, particularly from the likes of McCain, who denounced Russia as a bully during its 2008 war with Georgia. Democrats have rallied to Rice’s defence, with Senator Dianne Feinstein accusing Republicans of engaging in character assassination, while a group of House Democrats contended that Rice is the target of 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 September 11 attack on the US 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. The fact that Rice was working from information provided by the CIA would seem to undercut such a theory.”
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 US 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 the eight things you need to know about Susan Rice in case she becomes America’s next top diplomat.
The most damning lapse in the Obama administration’s handling of the September 11 attack on the US 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 following the deaths of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But Republicans have nonetheless questioned her fitness to serve as the top US diplomat on the grounds that she intentionally spun the American public in a series of Sunday morning interviews, saying that the attack was likely a spontaneous response to the broadcast of an internet video portraying Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in a negative light. McCain has pointed to the fact that the head of the Libyan National Assembly informed CBS News that the attack was “pre-planned” in the same programme that Rice contended it was likely a spontaneous reaction to the film. Rice’s account — which subsequently unravelled — fit the administration’s election narrative that it had trounced Al Qaida. Indeed, President Obama boasted in his address to the UN General Assembly that he had brought Al Qaida to its knees. “Al Qaida has been weakened and Osama Bin Laden is no more,” the president said in his speech at UN headquarters this September. My Washington Post colleague Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker column, initially gave Rice two pinocchios for her briefings, but then provided a more sympathetic take on her performance in response to the attack from McCain, whom he noted had defended Condoleezza Rice from allegations that she had cooked the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. It may very well be determined that Rice spun her presentation to emphasise 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 a contemporaneous 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. But in the end, this may have more to do with the politics and procedures governing Senate confirmation hearings than the merits. Rice’s reputation as a proponent of humanitarian intervention stems from a 2006 op-ed she wrote with former US national security advisor, Anthony Lake, and the late Donald Payne, which called for air strikes against Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets to compel Sudan to allow international peacekeepers into Darfur. In Libya, Rice emerged as a principal proponent of the Nato-led air campaign that toppled Muammar Gaddafi’s government. But don’t bet on Rice pressing for a US invasion of Syria if she is appointed secretary of state.
She has proven less activist in government than she was in her days as the opposition. So far, Rice has shown little inclination to confront Sudan with military threats for its human rights abuses in the more recent killing fields of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile. As UN Ambassador, she has argued against US military involvement in Syria, which possesses a far more powerful military, including the region’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft systems and chemical weapons. “If anybody thought that I was going to be a bomb thrower or a wild-eyed advocate of military intervention, they don’t know me,” Rice told me in September. “There is no one-size-fits-all.”
For those in the State Department press corps, pack your bags and your hiking boots — because Rice likes to travel and she tends to cram a lot of side trips on her voyages. In an October 2010 trip to Sudan, Rice led the council and the press corps on visits to hospitals, a police training station and even a fistula treatment centre. Following that visit, Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, reportedly complained that Rice “drags us on all these ridiculous adventures, including this gynaecological clinic that has nothing to do with the United Nations,” according to a fellow traveller. But don’t expect to be invited to the fun stuff. When Rice and her colleague met up with movie star and Darfur activist George Clooney, the press corps were not invited. “We reporters never saw him,” Louis Charbonneau, Reuters’ UN bureau chief wrote in a blog post. “The journalists covering the Security Council’s African trip were barred from the party that Clooney, council diplomats and UN officials attended. According to several of those present, Clooney and US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had a long huddle to discuss the problems of Sudan, including the referendum and the seven-year-old conflict in Sudan’s remote western Darfur region. Of course Sudan was not the only interesting thing about the evening - one UN official boasted of having seven pictures of her and Clooney on her digital camera.”
Senator John F. Kerry, Rice’s key rival for America’s top diplomatic post, looks and bears himself like a mid-20th century movie star version of a US secretary of state — he is tall, patrician, courtly and white. Rice is none of those things, but she stands a chance of further changing the nation’s view of what an American secretary of state looks and sounds like in the 21st century. Rice, who had privileged upbringing in Washington, appears comfortable in the role of a superpower envoy, forcing her will on Americans less powerful friends and enemies. But she can also do gracious and charming, heading out first to the dance floor at a UN press ball. Her default in the Security Council, though, is sharp-elbowed. Rice’s colleagues have described here variously as the “bulldozer” and the “headmistress,” a dominating personality who can exhibit great forcefulness in making her case while frequently rubbing people the wrong way with her impatience for diplomatic niceties. One Security Council ambassador said he was taken aback by Rice’s full-throated brawls in the Security Council with Russia’s UN envoy Churkin. Rice has hardly blushed at her portrayal.
The Republicans have portrayed Rice as insufficiently supportive of Israel at the United Nations. This charge falls a bit flat when you consider the lengths to which Rice has gone to shield Israel from prosecution for war crimes for its conduct in the 2008-2009 war against Hamas. A Wikileaks cable details how Rice brow-beat the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon into rejecting a proposal by his own envoy, Ian Martin, to open a wide-ranging investigation into crimes against humanity by both sides in the conflict. Her action in defenCe of Israel has subjected her to intensive criticism from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, who maintain that she has placed America’s relationship with Israel over its commitment to hold nations accountable for possible crimes.
It’s too early to say how Rice will respond to the current crisis in Gaza, but she has done little in the Security Council so far to pressure Israel to back down from its military operations in the Gaza Strip in response to constant flurry of rocket attacks on Israeli soil. In a closed-door Security Council meeting last Monday, Rice told her counterparts that the US was not prepared to engage for now in negotiations on a statement, introduced by Morocco on behalf of the Arab League, that called for an immediate halt to “all military activities” in Gaza, according to council diplomats. Rice said that the US was concerned that the council’s action could undercut regional mediation efforts aimed at securing a ceasefire.
Republicans have tried to paint Rice as weak on Iran. The argument put forward is that, in four years, she has produced only one sanctions resolution on Iran and that she has been too cozy with China and Russia to compel them to accept a new round. It’s true that China and Russia have blocked a new resolution. It’s true that the Obama administration has secured the adoption of fewer resolutions than the George W. Bush administration and that they have not succeeded in stopping Iran’s nuclear drive. However, the measures have inflicted considerable pain on the Iranian regime, which has seen its shipping industry struggle and its currency free fall. The Republicans could claim that the most effective elements of the Obama administration’s sanctions policy — the interdiction of Iranian vessels at sea and the financial measures — were inherited by the Republicans. But then they would have to admit that they were succeeding. Human rights questions Republican efforts to question Rice’s national security credentials have gained little public traction, in part because her positions on key issues like Iran, North Korea and the Middle East are not dramatically different from theirs. But Rice has faced sharp criticism from human rights advocates, who feel that she is inconsistent in her commitment to universal values. “She tends to be strongest when the human rights violations involved are committed by US adversaries,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, recently told me. “But she is less strong when violations are committed by US friends, like Rwanda or Israel, or by governments more in the middle, like Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka has never featured prominently in discussions on foreign policy in Washington. But the final phase of the countries decades-long civil war, which ended in May 2009, resulted in the largest case of mass atrocities under President Obama’s watch. An internal UN review of the crisis blasted the UN Secretariat for failing to fulfil its obligation to protect civilians. But the report also cites the failure of the UN Security Council — where Rice represented the US — to act decisively to stop the violence, which resulted in the slaughter of 40,000 to 70,000 civilians, mostly at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. When the government launched its final offensive this year against the country’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it was Mexico and Austria that first raised the alarm in the Security Council. France and Britain sent their foreign ministers to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, to press the government to show restraint. The US supported those efforts to draw attention to the crisis in the Security Council, efforts which China and Russia opposed. Eventually, the US backed a compromise that allowed for discussion on the Sri Lankan conflict in the UN basement. “The US government remained relatively silent on the Sri Lankan crisis, especially in the early stages of the fighting,” said Fabienne Hara, vice-president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group. Its response to Sri Lanka “did not seem to match the commitment to preventing mass human rights abuses stated during the presidential campaign,” she said. Rice challenged that assessment, saying “my perception is that we spoke out very forcefully.” She said the US had a strong ambassador on the ground in Sri Lanka conveying American concerns and that the assistant secretary of state for refugees travelled there to conduct an assessment mission. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rice said, had been personally focused on the issue. “I think that is an instance where our stand was clear, consistent and principled,” she said.
The Republicans have Benghazi. Human rights advocates have the M23. A former US assistant secretary of state under the Clinton administration, Rice has long-standing and close relations with many African leaders, notably President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan general who led the armed insurgency that ended the genocide in 1994. Kagame’s government has been a friend of Washington since, but it’s also been the target of UN investigations, claiming it carried out mass reprisal killings in Rwanda and neighbouring Eastern Congo. An independent panel, set up by the Security Council to monitor violations of a UN arms embargo in eastern Congo, concluded in a damning report this summer that the Rwanda military was sponsoring an armed mutiny by a group calling itself M23, that is seeking to seize control of a huge swath of eastern Congo. In response to a major offensive outside Goma by the M23, which has now acquired night-vision equipment and mortars, Rice issued a series of tweets recently, saying she was “appalled” by the resumption of M23’s military campaign. She proposed additional sanctions against the group’s commanders and expressed support for Congo’s “efforts to repel the M23’s offensive.” However, behind closed doors, Rice’s team sought to remove language implicating Rwanda — which has been accused by a UN panel of sponsoring the M23 — in the operation, according to council diplomats. “In my view, she is too close to the regime in Kigali,” Congo’s Ambassador to France, Atoki Ileka, told Turtle Bay in September. “To be quite frank, I got the impression that they did all they could to protect Rwanda. And we came out publicly the pressure was there so they had to let it go. If we hadn’t gone public, I think the report would never have been made public.” In an interview I conducted for the Washington Post in September, Rice said “it’s not true” that she tried to block the report. She said that she merely asked for its release to be delayed to provide Rwanda a fair chance to respond and that she has forcefully criticised Rwanda for its alleged interference in Congo.
Colum Lynch writes Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog.