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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaking to the General Assembly. (U.S. State Department photo)
President Barack Obama should ditch the idea of nominating U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice to be the next Secretary of State on substantive grounds, not because she may have -- knowingly or not -- fudged the truth about the attack on the poorly guarded CIA installation in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice's biggest disqualification is the fact that she has shown little willingness to challenge the frequently wrongheaded conventional wisdom of Official Washington, including on the critical question of invading Iraq in 2003. At that pivotal moment, Rice essentially went with the flow, rather than standing up for the principles of international law or exposing the pro-war deceptions.
In an NPR interview on Dec. 20, 2002, Rice joined the bellicose chorus, declaring: "It's clear that Iraq poses a major threat. It's clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that's the path we're on. I think the question becomes whether we can keep the diplomatic balls in the air and not drop any, even as we move forward, as we must, on the military side."
Rice also was wowed by Secretary of State Colin Powell's deceptive speech to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. The next day, again on NPR, Rice said, "I think he has proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don't think many informed people doubted that."
After the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Rice foresaw an open-ended U.S. occupation of Iraq. In a Washington Post online forum, she declared, "To maximize our likelihood of success, the US is going to have to remain committed to and focused on reconstruction and rehabilitation of Iraq for many years to come. This administration and future ones will need to demonstrate a longer attention span than we have in Afghanistan, and we will have to embrace rather than evade the essential tasks of peacekeeping and nation building."
Only later, when the Iraq War began going badly and especially after she became an adviser to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign, did Rice take a less hawkish position. She opposed President Bush's troop "surge" in 2007, a stance in line with Obama's anti-Iraq War posture. During Campaign 2008, she also mocked one of Sen. John McCain's trips to the Baghdad as "strolling around the market in a flak jacket."
The Ambitious Staffer
In other words, Rice fits the mold more of an ambitious staffer -- ever mindful of the safe boundaries for permissible thought in Official Washington and eager to serve one's political patron -- than of a courageous foreign policy thinker who can see around the corners to spot the actual threats looming for the United States and the world.
Though Rice's defenders might say there is nothing unusual in an aspiring foreign policy operative following the consensus or the instructions of a superior, there are plenty of troubling examples of innocent people getting killed when careerism overwhelmed wisdom and judgment. For instance, in 2003, CIA Director George Tenet, a malleable former congressional staffer, helped pave the way for the disastrous Iraq War.
Ironically, Rice's eagerness to play the Washington game also landed her in the middle of the current "scandal" over her statements regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi which left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
On Sept. 16, Rice appeared on five (count them) Sunday TV shows, adhering closely to the CIA-provided "talking points," which cited the likelihood of a spontaneous protest preceding the violent assault but which alluded to the tenuousness of the evidence available at the time.
Blinded by the limelight, Rice seems to have blundered into the controversy, giving little thought to the possibility that she was being put out front by then-CIA Director David Petraeus and Obama's counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, who is the usual administration spokesman regarding terrorist attacks. Brennan immediately flew off to Libya on a fact-finding trip, leaving Rice in the unaccustomed role of 'splaining the attack in Benghazi.
Rice also wasn't overly curious as to why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begged off on grounds she was "not going to offer any hypothetical explanations."
Was Ambassador Rice too ambitious and/or too naïve? For her it is a cruel irony that by letting her vision be blurred by the allure of five sets of klieg lights in one day, and the opportunity to embellish her persona for the top job at State, she has imperiled her own candidacy.
Loyal functionaries like Rice, with a penchant for doing whatever they are told do not expect to be mouse-trapped by their colleagues. But, if you can't see that kind of thing coming -- particularly when folks like Brennan and Petraeus are involved -- you should not expect to become Secretary of State.