Why Obama’s Foreign Policy Is Better Without Susan Rice

Military analysis.
Dec. 13 2012 6:34 PM

Susan Rice Surrenders

But it may be Obama’s foreign policy—not Sen. John McCain—that wins in the end.

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U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on Nov. 29, 2012

Photo by Henny Ray Abrams/AFP/Getty Images.

Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration as secretary of state, so the next topic of discussion in Washington political circles is clear: Was this a defeat for President Barack Obama and a victory for Sen. John McCain?

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

McCain had been the most adamant, among a handful of Republicans, who blamed Rice for her role in spreading false information about the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The criticism was spurious. Rice did go on several Sunday talk shows and say that the attack stemmed from spontaneous protests against an American-made anti-Muslim video—an analysis that turned out to be untrue. But it was very clear—and no one has disputed—that Rice was merely reciting a “talking-points” memo circulated by the U.S. intelligence community. As U.N. ambassador, Rice had no line of authority over events in Libya. Nor, interestingly, did McCain or the others blame Secretary Clinton, who was formally responsible, or then-CIA director David Petraeus, who helped write the talking points—perhaps because they are both friends of his, whereas Rice had lashed out at McCain while serving as Obama’s foreign-policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign.

After McCain’s first assault on Rice, Obama came to her defense, calling the assault on her character “outrageous” and inviting McCain and the others to come after him. Only a few other Republicans rallied behind McCain. It seemed that Rice, if nominated, would be confirmed with a healthy margin, albeit after some struggle.

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But then McCain pulled a very clever gambit, announcing publicly that he would seek a chair on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (while retaining his status as top Republican on the Armed Services Committee). This would give him a direct role in the interrogation and confirmation of Rice or any other nominee for secretary of state and, indeed, the entire tier of assistant secretaries and undersecretaries. It would also allow him to request hearings and to call the secretary as a witness on any number of topics that he and his Republican colleagues might wish to investigate. He could be a constant thorn in the administration’s side on an issue—foreign policy, broadly speaking—that presidents are usually allowed to pursue with great leeway and that this president has pursued with success and high ratings.

In the end, with all the other fights Obama has on his hands in his second term, this one didn’t seem worth the struggle. As Rice herself put it in a letter released this afternoon, “I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly—to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. … Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time.”

A White House spokesman said in an email this afternoon that McCain’s attacks had nothing to do with Rice’s decision. A spokesman on McCain’s staff said in a phone conversation that Rice’s pending nomination had nothing to do with his decision to seek a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. Both statements deserve a cocked eyebrow.

This was certainly a political confrontation, and Obama backed down. But that doesn’t mean, necessarily, that he lost or that McCain won—at least not on any issue beyond whether Susan Rice will be nominated as secretary of state, something Obama hadn’t yet done in any event. It doesn’t necessarily tilt the outcome of any conflict to come.