Lots of public officials and Washington, D.C., insiders do not want U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be nominated as secretary of state. Most of these critics think she irrevocably lost credibility by going on five Sunday-morning television shows on September 16 to deny any connection between radical Islamic terrorists and the fatal assaults on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi. We know now that when Rice voiced the administration talking points five days after the attack, she and others in the Obama administration already had access to intelligence sources that suggested that the assault was the preplanned work of al-Qaedist terrorists, not a spontaneous protest by a mob angered over an obscure two-month-old video.
Why, then, did a U.N. ambassador promulgate so emphatically a narrative that by any stretch of the imagination simply could not be true — and one that was so flatly contradicted by all sorts of information, from real-time videos to statements of the Libyans themselves?
We know Rice was being groomed to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton if President Obama won reelection, and she was eager both to showcase her skills before a national audience and to demonstrate her dutifulness to Barack Obama. So Rice either was drafted or volunteered to launch the pre-election narrative of a spontaneous demonstration gone wild over a crude anti-Islamist video — a narrative far preferable to that of a premeditated al-Qaedist attack, which would call into question the upbeat administration assessments of the Arab Spring, the Libyan intervention, and al-Qaeda in retreat after Osama bin Laden’s death.
For a while, Rice’s emphatic assertions paid off well enough politically: The Obama administration got through the final two months of the campaign without there being a groundswell of popular anger over the murder of a U.S. ambassador and a seven-hour firefight that led to other American deaths. For Rice’s part, the president was appreciative and ready to translate her televised marquee pushback performance into a nomination as secretary of state.
But things seldom work quite so simply in Washington. True, Obama was reelected, and Rice was poised for the nomination. But additional information from videos and from the survivors of the assault kept appearing to contradict the Rice narrative — coupled with the bizarre resignation of General David Petraeus and his even more baffling testimony before the House Intelligence Committee that at once challenged Rice, her administration handlers, and Petraeus’s own previous closed-door statements.
The nation’s top diplomat must be credible and savvy. Yet if Rice misled the nation by deliberately ignoring intelligence sources, or if she was fooled by the administration into offering unlikely scenarios for the sake of her chief’s reelection, then she is either not credible or naïve.
That should have been the end of a rather tame story, given that Rice’s critics were mild in comparison to what Washington is accustomed to from past scandals. After all, it is not as if a special prosecutor had been appointed, like the one who went after Scooter Libby for a crime (supposedly disclosing the fact that Valerie Plame was a covert operative) that was not a crime (she was not a covert operative) — and if it were a crime, it was known in advance to the prosecutor to have been committed by someone other than Libby (Richard Armitage).
But in the era of Obama, almost everything can be connected to race. So it was not long before the Black Caucus, the Washington Post, and liberal columnists alleged that racism and sexism drove Rice’s neo-Confederate detractors. President Obama, in his now-accustomed Skip Gates/Trayvon Martin posturing mode, also did his best to inflame the tensions, as he dared critics to come after him instead, as if they were bullies out to pick on a vulnerable black woman — and as if the president himself had not hidden behind Rice, throwing her into the public arena in the first place and then refusing to offer any details of his own reaction to the attacks that might have fulfilled his taunt by redirecting scrutiny onto himself.
There is sexism and racism in l’affaire Rice — but sadly it is all originating from the Obama administration and its supporters. First, having a woman or a minority as secretary of state has been accepted as the new normal for over a decade. Indeed, we have not seen a white male in the office since Warren Christopher stepped down in January 1997. Over that period, Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell, was ridiculed by liberal critics for his misleading testimony about weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the Iraq War; I don’t recall him alleging racism. Vocal liberal senators tore into Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, during her confirmation hearings; throughout her tenure, she was subjected to venomous criticism over her role in the Iraq War. Was Senator Barbara Boxer, who mercilessly grilled her, a racist? A disinterested observer over the last decade would conclude that the chief critics of black and female secretaries of state have been liberal Democrats — with no countervailing criticism of them from the Black Caucus, the Washington Post, or the Democratic party. Note in that regard that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left the Bush administration under vicious liberal criticism — although not quite as harsh as the vitriol directed at Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Again, their critics were not tarred with allegations of racism or anti-Latino bias.