Politics & Policy

Secretary of State Rice?

The U.N. ambassador’s biggest problem isn’t Libya — it’s her fellow Democrats.

President Obama told Bloomberg TV last week that he still hasn’t made up his mind who should replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That means the effort — conducted both in public and behind closed doors — to persuade him not to name U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice will intensify.

The public criticism is led by Republicans who say that Rice is too “political” a choice and that she may have deliberately misled the public before the November election about who was behind the Benghazi killings of U.S. personnel in September. The inside-baseball attacks on Rice are led by Democrats who view her as temperamental and opportunistic. If Susan Rice doesn’t become secretary of state, it may be less because of Benghazi than because she has angered too many liberals.

Being temperamental and opportunistic doesn’t normally attract criticism in Washington, D.C. — the whole town is full of type-A schemers. But many Democrats see Rice as a special case. Columnist Trudy Rubin, a den mother to liberal foreign-policy types, says that Rice “has established a reputation for brusqueness and bluster that raises real questions about her suitability for the job.” Dana Milbank of the Washington Post bluntly stated, “She is ill-equipped to be the nation’s top diplomat for reasons that have little to do with Libya.” Most damming, he concluded that “there likely aren’t enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her.” National Journal’s Michael Hirsh quotes “a longtime foreign-policy expert who has worked for Democratic administrations” who says that Rice can’t handle disagreement: “Her voice is always right on the edge of a screech. You want somebody who has a sense of authority. It’s like [Treasury Secretary Tim] Geithner at the beginning. He had no air of authority about him.”

Such quotes have prompted Rice defenders to cry foul. Emily Bazelon of Slate says the last quote “walks up to the line of sexism” and reminds her of anonymous attacks on Obama Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for being “kind of a bully on the bench.” But raising sexism as a factor in the criticism of Rice isn’t likely to fly. Many of her critics are women, and there is apparently no love lost between Rice and the person she is seeking to replace, Hillary Clinton. Michael Sneed of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that Clinton would prefer John Kerry to Rice, who is “not the friendliest person.” A “top White House source” told Sneed that Clinton’s recent praise of Rice for having done “a great job” was considered “underwhelming and tepid.”

Clinton supporters will also privately acknowledge that they haven’t forgotten that Rice, a State Department official in Bill Clinton’s administration, was one of the first former Clinton aides to jump ship in 2007 and endorse Barack Obama. Rice even attacked Hillary’s stances on Iraq and Iran, asking for an “explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong.” “One thing you can be sure of is that the Clintons never forget disloyalty,” a source close to the Clintons tells me.

Indeed, many of the negative anecdotes currently told about Rice that focus on her time in government during the 1990s could have come only from Clinton aides. Witnesses describe Rice, who was then an assistant secretary of state, flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke, the late ambassador, during a meeting at the State Department. “Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults,” Dana Milbank commented acidly in the Washington Post.

Stories about slights and slams abound. At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Susan Rice showed up late for a speaking engagement at a reception being held for foreign ambassadors at a private home. She walked up to the front door of the house where the reception was being held, ignored the hostess’s greeting, and then had a heated cell-phone conversation on the stoop about her schedule. After she finished the call, according to a diplomatic source who attended the reception, Rice told the hostess, “I can’t stay. I’m out of here.” She left without speaking to or meeting anyone.

An anecdote that comes from current Obama foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power may be the most damning of all. In a 2001 article called “Bystanders to Genocide,” Power gave a searing account of how Rice, then an aide at the Clinton National Security Council, reacted to the 1994 genocide of Rwandans in Africa. According to Power, at a critical meeting, Rice asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice has said she doesn’t recall the incident but has conceded to Power, “If I said it, it was completely inappropriate, as well as irrelevant.”

Susan Rice doesn’t deny that she is a hard-charging personality. “People know when they talk to me that what they see is what they get — that I’m not playing games,” Rice said in a recent book called How Great Women Lead. And she shared a warning with the book’s co-authors: “I think people know not to mess with me, and if they try, they will learn.”

But the real lesson many of her fellow Democrats have learned is that Susan Rice is a potential embarrassment to their party. So, despite her closeness to President Obama, many loyal Democrats are urging him to look elsewhere for the nation’s top diplomat — both for his sake and for the sake of the nation’s foreign policy.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.


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