NEWS FLASH, December 13: Susan Rice withdraws name from consideration—this article provides relevant background.
As Barack Obama prepares to reshuffle his cabinet deck, a lot of attention has been focused on a person reportedly under consideration to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State: Susan Rice. Currently ambassador to the United Nations, Rice is a brilliant, blunt career diplomat.
Obama likes Rice, but she is very unpopular with the establishment. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, seemingly tasked with taking the lead on deflating Rice’s chances, quickly attacked her  as “ill-equipped to be the nation’s top diplomat.”
It’s well worth the exercise of carefully studying what Milbank contends, because it tells us more about the prevailing “wisdom” than it does about Rice and her actual qualifications. In other words, one might credibly find Susan Rice very problematical—but not for the reasons her detractors cite.
Let’s start with Milbank’s overall critique:
Even in a town that rewards sharp elbows and brusque personalities, Rice has managed to make an impressive array of enemies — on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom and abroad.
Clearly, not a “hail fellow well met” who is loved by legislator, policy mandarin and lobbyist alike! Milbank inadvertently suggests she’s a rare, fairly honest presence in a fishbowl full of two-faced piranhas.
Particularly in comparison with the other person often mentioned for the job, Sen. John Kerry, she can be a most undiplomatic diplomat, and there likely aren’t enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her.
A little fairness is called for. Privately, those who interact with Kerry will describe a singularly difficult personality. (For a chuckle, see this “personality assessment ”—low on warmth, positive emotions, altruism.) But Kerry has been in the club for years, and knows how not to push too far or make trouble for the corporations that so influence foreign policy. (Oh, like the Post’s Milbank—and George W. Bush, Kerry is an alum of one of the most effective clubs ever—the Yale secret society Skull & Bones, where it is instilled in young men how things really work, and how if you go along, you get along.)
What’s the next problem with Rice?
Back when she was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, she appalled colleagues by flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke during a meeting with senior staff at the State Department, according to witnesses. Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults.
The late Holbrooke was another establishment darling to whom many non-insiders over the years have longed to flip the bird. As James Mann, former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent wrote in his book The Obamians , “Holbrooke had always tied himself to power, to worldly, prosperous Democrats like Averell and Pamela Harriman, Clark Clifford and the Clintons.”
Among those she has insulted is the woman she would replace at State. Rice was one of the first former Clinton administration officials to defect to Obama’s primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Rice condemned Clinton’s Iraq and Iran positions, asking for an “explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong.”
And? The problem there is? Clinton has often been sympathetic to aggressive war.
Clinton got a measure of revenge in 2010 after she worked out a deal with the Russian foreign minister on a package of Iran sanctions to be adopted by the U.N. Security Council. The White House wanted Rice to make the announcement (part of a campaign to increase her profile that included high-visibility foreign trips and TV appearances), but a Clinton aide got Kerry to ask Clinton about the matter during an unrelated Senate hearing.
More petty than anything—and not from Rice.
Rice’s put-down of Clinton was tame compared with her portrayal of McCain during 2008, which no doubt contributes to McCain’s hostility toward her today. She mocked McCain’s trip to Iraq (“strolling around the market in a flak jacket”), called his policies “reckless” and said “his tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s dangerous.”
Anyone who looks carefully at McCain can’t help but see his tendency to immerse himself in all kinds of grandstanding opportunities, without knowing or adding anything to the matter at hand. He also famously reverses himself constantly. For example , visiting Libya and practically hot-tubbing with Qaddafi, then cannon-balling to the front of the “hang Qaddafi” parade.
When you read a column like Milbank’s, it’s worth keeping in mind the Washington Post’s longtime role as the voice of the military , and the giant mining, oil and other resource extraction companies who love the troops. Are McCain and Kerry the way Milbank would have us perceive them, some kind of foreign policy whiz kids? And are they fellows who fundamentally disagree on policy—but in a respectful way, while representing two sides of a reasonable debate?
For another view, see this WhoWhatWhy piece , published in June, 2011, before Qaddafi had been toppled. Here’s an excerpt from our article:
Democrat John Kerry and Republican John McCain are proposing a bill to authorize US troops’ involvement in Libya for an entire year. And for what reason? “To advance national security interests in Libya.”
But what national security interests? Those have never been spelled out. Kerry and McCain, according to McClatchy Newspapers, aren’t saying.
Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does, however, warn that the US needs to support the Libyan rebels because failing to do so would “be ignorant, irresponsible and shortsighted and dangerous for our country.”
Shortsighted and dangerous for our country? How so? Kerry says just enough that it’s clear he knows something we don’t. Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with the principally humanitarian objectives originally cited for the bombing campaign.
How ironic it is that the establishment is angry at Susan Rice for possible misstatements over what the US knew regarding the attack that led to the death of US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, and three other Americans. Whatever took place then—and that is still not clear—making misstatements about one incident should hardly be more troubling than advocating for wars and invasions for hidden reasons, and allowing the American people to be misled  as to what is actually going on in a massive and bloody adventure such as Libya. Rice was instrumental in convincing Obama to launch NATO’s eight-month bombing campaign against Libya—but where do we see her being criticized for that?
Continuing with Milbank’s Post piece on Rice:
It was Rice’s own shoot-first tendency that caused her to be benched as a spokesman for the Obama campaign for a time in 2008. She unnerved European allies when she denounced as “counterproductive” and “self-defeating” the U.N. policy that Iran suspend its nuclear program before talks can begin. She criticized President George W. Bush and McCain because they “insisted” on it. But, as The Post’s Glenn Kessler pointed out at the time, European diplomats were rattled by such remarks because the precondition was their idea.
Should we trust The Post’s assurances that the Iran “precondition” was really the Europeans’ idea? It’s the oldest trick in the book to get other countries, like Turkey with Syria and Qatar with Libya—out front to mask imperial calculations. Just ask that most reticent group, the “Coalition of the Willing ,” that was muscled by the Bush Administration into feigning enthusiasm for the Iraq war.
And should opposing the idea of preconditions prior to negotiations really constitute a black mark against a diplomat? How well have such preconditions worked out in the standoff between Israel and Palestine?
Rice’s pugilism provoked the Russians to weigh in this week in opposition to her nomination as secretary of state. The Russian business daily Kommersant  quoted an anonymous Russian foreign ministry official as saying that Rice, who quarreled with Russia over Syria, is “too ambitious and aggressive,” and her appointment would make it “more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.”
When others speak their minds, they’re “bold,” “blunt,” “refreshingly direct,” “effective.” We’ve seen those terms, along with harsh criticism, directed at….the Russian leader Vladimir Putin. More interesting is that Rice is so hated that she gets it coming and going—she’s not on board on some things, and too much on board on others (read Syria.)
Meanwhile, in all of this, there is scarcely any big-picture discussion about all the unnecessary, tragic wars we’ve seen prosecuted by the “heroes” in this saga, and more anger at this Rice than at another woman named Rice who served as Secretary of State, and today practically gets a free ride: Condoleezza, the friendly face of the Iraq deception and the tragedy that followed.
Meanwhile, the Post piece reads like a straight hit from the Hillary Clinton camp. Beyond Milbank’s point that the Clintonites don’t like Rice for perceived transgressions and indignities, they probably also would prefer that Hillary not be followed by another woman who might outshine her in concrete diplomatic breakthroughs, of which there have been not so many thus far under Obama. After all, Hillary’s got a presidential race to run, which calls for plenty of image-burnishing, sharp elbows…and lots of assists from well-positioned pundits who tell us what to think and whom to like.