Obama's Susan Rice conundrum

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has become a willing pawn in Senate Republicans' efforts to force President Barack Obama into a costly and unnecessary fight over who will serve as his secretary of state when Hillary Clinton leaves that post in the new year. Once a trio of Republicans announced they would block Ms. Rice's confirmation for a job to which she had not been appointed, her aggressive efforts to smooth matters over have only given her opponents more opportunity to put the president in a box. Secretary of state is a position for which presidents do not typically have to use political capital, but now, at a time when Mr. Obama needs every bit of power he gained through re-election, he is being forced to expend it to defend someone he may or may not have intended to nominate in the first place.

Give them credit for this, the Republicans have played the politics beautifully — Mr. Obama now can't afford to nominate Ms. Rice, for fear that it would hinder efforts to resolve the fiscal cliff, and he can't afford not to, for fear of looking weak.


The tragedy of how this has played out is twofold. First, the Republicans' objections to Ms. Rice, which stem from her recital of CIA talking points about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sunday morning talk shows, have nothing to do with the important questions that incident poses. And second, Mr. Obama's decision on whom to nominate to the top position in his cabinet now risks taking into consideration something other than who would be the best man or woman for the job.

It is fair to say that the Obama administration has not adequately responded to the questions about whether it ignored requests for more security in Benghazi, whether it took seriously enough the threat from al-Qaida-affilated groups in North Africa and elsewhere, and whether its contingency plans in case of an attack were remotely adequate.


We know plenty, though, about what role Ms. Rice played in all of this, and it wasn't much. Five days after the attack that left four dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Ms. Rice went on several Sunday morning talk shows to give the administration's position on what had happened. She dutifully recited unclassified talking points made at the request of a Democrat in Congress, reportedly Maryland Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. Those talking points reiterated an early and incorrect assessment that the attack had stemmed from a spontaneous demonstration in opposition to an American-made anti-Islamic film, and although they referred to the involvement of "extremists," they did not include the name "al-Qaida." By the time she appeared on television, Libya's president was publicly challenging the notion of a spontaneous demonstration, and some in the U.S. intelligence community were privately doing so, but that information didn't make its way into the talking points.

Why was Ms. Rice the one to appear on the talk shows rather than someone with more direct knowledge of what happened? Surely that's a question she's asking herself a hundred times a day. But the notion that she was complicit in what "may end up being the biggest cover-up that we've ever experienced in history," as Republican Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe suggested, or that Ms. Rice somehow forms a link between the Benghazi attack and those on U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, as Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins asserted, is absurd. If parroting talking points that turn out not to be true is a disqualification for office, virtually no one in Washington should be allowed to serve.

Ms. Rice is no political hack. She is a Phi Beta Kappa Stanford graduate and a Rhodes Scholar. She served as an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, was a Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy, and has been ambassador to the United Nations and a member of President Obama's cabinet for four years. Whether she is the right person to follow Secretary Clinton's extraordinary tenure, though, is another matter entirely. The fact that she and her husband own millions of dollars in stock in companies that would profit from the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline — a decision about which will be waiting on the next secretary of state's agenda — is troubling.

But President Obama cannot allow the manufactured outrage about the Benghazi talking points to dictate his decision. If he can make the case that Susan Rice is the best person to serve as the nation's top diplomat, Americans — and the Senate — will support him. If he can explain why someone else would be better, the public will not think him weak. But if he looks like he is getting in the dirt with the schoolyard bullies of the Senate, he will lose no matter which way the confirmation vote goes.