Foggy Bottom Race: The Susan Rice Noise Gets Louder, Thanks to Senator McGrouchy

You’ve already heard Senator John McCain firing the opening salvo on the State Department’s (maybe) future Secretary Rice. Susan Rice has not even been announced as a nominee yet but hey,  this the pre-emption doctrine at work.

In any case, we are reminded of his take on this Rice and not that Rice. Senator McCain argued that  Susan Rice is “not qualified” to be the next secretary since she said the Benghazi attack began spontaneously and promised to block her nomination. In 2005, Mr. McCain argued that Condoleezza Rice was qualified to be the next secretary of state, despite her testimony about those WMDs in Iraq.

So then the newly reelected prez says come after me, dudes!

And Senator McCain took him up on that offer, so then the GOP wants a special select committee ala Watergate to investigate the attack in Benghazi.

Thereafter, just like in the movies, Nevada’s Harry Reid came out with a three-barrel page turner written with a scathing .44 Magnum pen.

Oops!  But what’s this we hear? Is it true that in January, the Arizona senator will lose his top-ranking committee seat due to term limits?  And that the only ranking Republican spot available to him next session will be on the Indian Affairs Committee?

What’s this world coming to?

The jaded part of me says born or made, politicians are bound to disappoint.

* * *

Maureen Dowd over in the NYT waded into the matter and asked, Is Rice Cooked?  I dunno, is she?

Rice, who has a bull-in-a-china-shop reputation, is diplomatic enough for the top diplomatic job. [..] Rice should have realized that when a gang showed up with R.P.G.’s and mortars in a place known as a hotbed of Qaeda sympathizers and Islamic extremist training camps, it was not anger over a movie. She should have been savvy enough to wonder why the wily Hillary was avoiding the talk shows.”

In WaPo, Robert Kagan, prominent neoconservative writer with the Brookings Institution and husband of State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland said that  “the idea that Rice should be disqualified because of statements she made on television in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, strikes me as unfair. [...] I haven’t seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice’s statements were part of a coverup to hide a terrorist attack.”

Also in WaPo, Dana Milbank wrote about  Susan Rice’s tarnished resume with inside the building stories from unnamed witnesses (ah yes, the knives are out!):

“Rice has managed to make an impressive array of enemies — on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom and abroad. 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.
[...]
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.
[...]
But the nation’s top diplomat needs to show more sensitivity and independence — traits Clinton has demonstrated in abundance. Obama can do better at State than Susan Rice.”

After weeks of being the Benghazi punching bag, and with 97 House Republicans (who have no role in confirming a cabinet secretary) co-signing a letter to  President Obama about being “deeply troubled” that Susan Rice is under consideration as possible successor of Hillary Clinton (claiming  she “caused irreparable damage to her credibility both at home and around the world”), and just one day before Thanksgiving, the subject of so much online ink finally spoke up to defend herself:

She said she respects Republican Sen. John McCain, who has been critical of her, but says “some of the statements he’s made about me have been unfounded, but I look forward to having the opportunity at the appropriate time to discuss all of this with him.”

One wonders why she is speaking out now? Is that “appropriate time” during an expected nomination hearing?

Also this past weekend, Reuters has an item that says Susan Rice battles critics over style, substance, perceptions with mostly unnamed diplomats complaining about blunt language and what appears to be a double standard when it comes to breaking eggs.

Diplomats on the 15-nation U.N. Security Council privately complain of Rice’s aggressive negotiating tactics, describing her with terms like “undiplomatic” and “sometimes rather rude.” They attributed some blunt language to Rice – “this is crap,” “let’s kill this” or “this is bull___.”

“She’s got a sort of a cowboy-ish attitude,” one Western diplomat said. “She has a tendency to treat other countries as mere (U.S.) subsidiaries.”
[...]
“She’s not easy,” said David Rothkopf, the top manager and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine. “I’m not sure I’d want to take her on a picnic with my family, but if the president wants her to be secretary of state, she’ll work hard.”
Indeed, along with a “no-nonsense” style, Rice has the most important ingredient for a successful secretary of state – a close relationship with the U.S. president, Rothkopf said.
[...]
Rothkopf, who was an official in President Bill Clinton’s administration, cited James Baker and Henry Kissinger as exemplary secretaries of state.

They were “tough infighters who broke a few eggs and made some enemies. They are admired for their toughness, and (Rice) is attacked for her abrasiveness,” he said.

And New York Magazine’s John Heilemann in State of War offers at least five reasons why Obama will appoint Rice to succeed Clinton and also why she will be confirmed.  One of the reasons for this prediction with “a 79.4357 percent probability” is that “McCain is being a jackass—and Obama is sick of it.”

Amidst the noise generated by rumors of this possible nomination, perhaps Stephen Walt over in Foreign Policy articulated the best argument against the Rice nomination as the next secretary of state. He writes:

I fear that unlike Hillary Clinton, Rice is too much of an Obama insider and too dependent on the president’s patronage to be an ideal Secretary of State. As a result, her appointment will reinforce the growing lack of intellectual diversity within the administration.
[...]
Rice, by contrast, has no independent power base. She did serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Clinton administration (to no great distinction), but signed up early with Obama and was a key foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign. She obviously has Obama’s confidence, but her current ascendancy depends solely on the president’s backing. Maintaining his personal support will be critical to her effectiveness, which makes her much less likely to tell him things he doesn’t want to hear or that cut against the thrust of existing policy. Although Rice has the reputation of being a forceful advocate with sharp elbows, her relationship to the president runs the risk of making her more of a courtier than a counselor.

The danger of an administration suffering from groupthink is certainly real. Hello Iraq! But with Susan Rice as an Obama insider, no foreign leader will doubt her closeness to this president.

Of course, if the secretary of state is too independent or too much of an outsider, he or she could end up marginalized by White House insiders.  Remember Cordell Hull during the Roosevelt years and of course, there is Colin Powell, during the first George W. Bush term.

In addition to Walt’s point, there are two things that we hope might be included in the calculation of nominating the next secretary of state.

One – somebody with enough stature and relationship with Congress who can help shore up support for the State Department budget, which is often an attractive candidate for pirate raid in this world of shrinking federal resources. In this dangerous world, the State Department cannot continue to do more with less. It should either be funded for the work that needs to be done or it should consolidate some of its overseas presence into regional hubs with appropriate support, staffing and funding.

Two – somebody with the right sauce who can help right the listing ship of the U.S. Foreign Service. The new norm of deploying diplomats into war zones which started during Condi Rice’s tenure has gone on for years now and into the Clinton tenure with no end in sight.  At the same time, assignments to non-war zone areas where there is continuing threats of physical harm or imminent danger to FS employees, including unaccompanied assignments (UT) which continue to expand.  As an aside, I’ve heard that there is one/one UT program specialist at the State Department to “support” 800 UT family members and partners. Is that as family friendly as it gets?

Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan continue to tax the shrinking resources of a small agency.  For example, in spring this year, the USG planned a presence of 11,500 personnel at 11 diplomatic sites in Iraq. According to the GAO, between fiscal years 2004 and 2008, Diplomatic Security (DS) operations in Iraq required approximately 36 percent of Diplomatic Security’s entire budget.  DS like the rest of the State Department had to draw staff and resources away from other programs.  Then there’s Afghanistan after 2014 where State will do Iraq all over again.

Of course, AIP posts have absolutely nothing to do with the persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, which have not diminished since 2008. And the persistent issues on assignments, performance evaluation and promotion just rage on.

Ambassador Rice has been at the helm of USUN since 2009 and her performance as chief of mission there has not lead us to believe that she is the right person who can inspire followers or provide the needed leadership to help the listing ship at State.  Here is part of the OIG report:

…  neither the mission’s leadership nor individual section chiefs have given sufficient attention to management of the mission’s people and processes.

Ø For many years USUN has focused few resources and little attention on training mission staff, leaving some in jobs for which they lack sufficient skills and others without an opportunity to upgrade or refresh their knowledge.

Ø USUN has not had a strategic approach to workforce planning and has refilled vacancies without considering mission priorities and reprogramming options.

That’s not the best starting point.  If you can’t manage people and processes, you are in a constant crisis mode. Which is not a good thing because — sooner or later people will burn out, stick their finger in a socket and mistakes will happen.

I actually would like to see Secretary Powell return to State. I do believe in second chances, and some of the work he started there needs revisiting.

President Obama, of course, has the prerogative to pick his cabinet secretary.  But I also think that despite Senator McGrouchy’s dare, President Obama can do better at State than Susan Rice. But not because of Benghazi. And not because of her sharp elbows.

 

 

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Filed under McCain, Obama, Politics, Secretary of State, State Department

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