With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton getting ready to leave her post after four years, it's a bettor's chance that President Barack Obama will tap U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to fill the position. And despite loud threats from key Republican senators to hold up Rice's nomination, odds are she'll get the job.
GOP critics charge that in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September, Rice displayed diplomatic naivete and incompetence by claiming on news shows that it was just a "spontaneous protest" and not the planned terrorist action that it proved to be. Although Rice was speaking from talking points prepared by intelligence agencies, which have since taken responsibility for deleting al Qaeda references from the information given her, her opponents say she should have known better than merely to repeat something that was at best specious -- or that with four Americans dead she should have at least been more equivocal in her comments, leaving room for other possibilities.
Hoping to gain political advantage on the newly re-elected president, Republicans are using Rice's possibly ill-advised statements to attack the administration's handling of the Libyan affair. And more than 100 representatives and a handful of senators have warned Obama not to nominate Rice to head the State Department. Indeed, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said he would do “everything in my power” to block Rice’s appointment to the post. After meeting with Rice Tuesday, he sounded even more adamant.
However, despite the contretemps and the political brinksmanship, this Beltway spat will be forgotten before long, many political experts say. In other words, Obama will name Rice to the top diplomatic post -- and she'll be confirmed.
By Not Nominating Rice, Obama Would Look Weak
The president has stated that he will nominate whomever he chooses to replace Clinton. And angered by Republican efforts to “besmirch” Rice’s reputation, Obama has said anyone with an issue should take it up with him.
Having drawn a line in the sand, if Obama appears to bow to Republicans’ demands he will appear spineless just when he needs strong support from his own party to put forward touchy initiatives like tax and entitlement reform and from House Republicans in fiscal talks, experts say.
“Going into fiscal cliff negotiations you don't want to give the impression you cave under pressure," said Thomas Whalen, political historian at Boston University. "That's the worst message you could give House Republicans. I think (Rice) will make it, but there will be political blood on the floor of the Senate. ... Painting Rice as incompetent gives [Republicans] political advantage. They need a victory. Any victory.”
Obama Is Concerned About His Legacy
Rice’s confirmation would make her the first Democratic black (and fourth female) Secretary of State, which would be another diversity barrier broken that America's first African-American president could claim. Obama's close advisers have said he is especially proud of having named the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice when he elevated Sonya Sotamayor to the bench three years ago. Appointing Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has the experience to be secretary of state, would not have the same historical cachet.
“I think Obama would much rather be known as someone who nominated a black woman,” said Albert Cover, a political science professor at Stony Brook University. “John Kerry is an unexciting or uninteresting choice."
Added Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, the last thing the president wants is a return of “the kind of national security debates from 2004 that Obama has moved beyond” and that Kerry is remembered for in his campaign for president against George W. Bush.
Rice Is As Qualified As Powell And Condi Rice
Rice has a long track record as a diplomat and specialist in international affairs. She was on the staff of the National Security Council and was an assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Bill Clinton. And in January 2009, Rice was unanimously confirmed as U.N. ambassador.
“She has been one of the most trusted members of President Obama's foreign policy team and a favorite of many Democratic foreign policymakers – a symbol of new directions in foreign policy undertaken under Obama,” said Princeton's Zelizer.
Moreover, by questioning her credentials because of statements she made on TV shows, the GOP has opened itself up anew to charges that George W. Bush's secretaries of state repeatedly made dubious statements about terrorists and the Iraqi war -- and were not chastized or demoted for them; instead, Republicans in Congress gave them a relatively free pass.
For example, in 2003, two years before she was named secretary of state, the Washington Post reported that Condoleezza Rice seemed to look “out of the loop by colleagues' claims that she did not read or recall vital pieces of intelligence.” And the Post article went on to detail that she "either missed or overlooked numerous warnings from intelligence agencies seeking to put caveats on claims about Iraq's nuclear weapons program, or she made public claims that she knew to be false. Most prominent is her claim that the White House had not heard about CIA doubts about an allegation that Iraq sought uranium in Africa before the charge landed in Bush's State of the Union address on Jan. 28; in fact, her National Security Council staff received two memos doubting the claim and a phone call from CIA Director George J. Tenet months before the speech."
And when Rice testified before the 9/11 Commission on April 8, 2004, regarding the President's Daily Brief of Aug. 6, 2001, commission member Timothy Roemer had this to say to Rice about al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s determination to strike America:
"You just said that the intelligence coming in indicated a big, big, big threat. Something was going to happen very soon and be potentially catastrophic. I don't understand, given the big threat, why the big principals don't get together. The principals meet 33 times in seven months, on Iraq, on the Middle East, on missile defense, China, on Russia. Not once do the principals ever sit down – you, in your job description as the national security adviser, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the president of the United States – and meet solely on terrorism to discuss in the spring and the summer, when these threats are coming in, when you've known since the transition that al Qaeda cells are in the United States, when, as the PDB said on August, bin Laden determined to attack the United States. Why don't the principals at that point say, Let's all talk about this, let's get the biggest people together in our government and discuss what this threat is and try to get our bureaucracies responding to it?”
Rice's predecessor, Secretary of State Colin Powell, is also vulnerable to charges that he presented dubious intelligence about Saddam Hussein's supposed cache of weapons of mass destruction when he made his case for war with Iraq in early 2003 at the United Nations. The weapons were never found and Powell's political career was likely ended by the misstep, which he later repudiated himself. According to a recent memoir by then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Powell had doubts about the WMD documentation even as he was offering it.
Politicizing Benghazi Isn’t Enough
Winning re-election earned Obama the right to select whomever he chooses to fill Cabinet positions. If the incident in Benghazi is all the GOP has to stop Susan Rice’s appointment then they will more than likely fail. Having killed bin Laden and kept the lid on anti-U.S. terrorist activities around the world, the Obama administration has strong credibility in the country when it comes to foreign policy and the Democrats in Congress are not going to let that perception be diluted.
“The Democrats in the Senate will move heaven and earth to get that nomination through," said Boston University's Whalen. "If they can’t get this nomination through then they can’t get anything done."
Republicans Still Worried About The 100 Percent
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has continued to alienate minority voters post-election by claiming he lost because Obama gave “gifts” to minorities. In the ensuing uproar, several Republican governors have called for the party to stop dividing Americans and stop giving women, blacks, Hispanics and others reasons to keep their distance from the GOP.
Rice's nomination is a chance for Republicans to show that they are indeed open to embracing 100 percent of Americans. “You have to appeal to women and young people,” Stony Brook's Cover said. “You can't seem to be a bunch of crotchety old white guys. It will be of no help for a welcoming party to block the nomination of a black woman as secretary of state.”
And anyway a filibuster is pretty much out of the question. It's unlikely that McCain and his cohorts can come up with 40 votes to override a cloture vote. “They won't attempt a filibuster or get that through,” Cover said. “Politically, it would be such a bad move. After the loss they will swallow [their pride] and allow [her nomination] to go through.”
CORRECTION -- A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Susan Rice would be the third female U.S. Secretary of State. She would in fact be the fourth.