WASHINGTON, Nov 29, 2012 (AFP)
WASHINGTON, Nov 29, 2012 (AFP)
Any hopes Susan Rice has of running US diplomacy are now hostage to the power games, long-nursed grievances and hard-nosed ambitions of the big beasts of Washington politics.
Rice, a possible pick for President Barack Obama’s next secretary of state, is becoming a scapegoat for the attack by extremists on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
Her plight shows how quickly polished reputations can be shredded in Washington and Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, must rue the day she drew the short straw of responding to Benghazi on Sunday political talk shows.
She said on September 16 that the attack was a “spontaneous” reaction to an anti-Muslim video, using CIA talking points she now admits were wrong. Extremists linked to al Qaeda are now blamed for the attack.
While Obama, basking in his re-election win, may be safe from Republican attacks, Rice’s luck may have run out because she is simply be the most obvious, vulnerable target close to him.
Smarting Republicans were always going to look to check Obama’s replenished power: depriving him of hiring a cherished lieutenant to lead the State Department would be a good start.
Senior aides say Obama has yet to tip his hand on who he will pick to succeed Hillary Clinton. Senator John Kerry is also in the mix.
In a bid to quell the firestorm threatening any nomination, Rice has met her main accusers, including senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte and other key Republicans.
But instead of ending the row, she seems to have ignited a backdraft.
Those close to Rice insist senators are ignoring clear evidence by suggesting that she had a political motive in covering up the terrorist nature of the attack several weeks before the presidential election.
But McCain said he was “significantly troubled” by Rice’s answers and would be hard pressed to support her if Obama chose to promote her.
White House spokesman Jay Carney Wednesday complained about a “sideshow” that had nothing to do with what happened in Benghazi, the focus of two government probes.
But Rice absorbed another damaging blow when moderate Republican Susan Collins said on Wednesday that even she needed more information on Rice’s role before she could vote to confirm her.
While Rice’s critics may be sincere in their disquiet over Benghazi, politics may also be at play.
McCain, a perennial political street fighter, seems still to be coming to terms with his 2008 defeat to Obama and has been a thorn in the president’s side on national security issues, including Syria.
Graham, another foreign policy critic, predicted in 2011 that Iraq would “go to hell” after the president withdrew troops and told Obama he “failed as commander in chief” over Benghazi.
He may also gain from clashing with Obama, as he seeks to avoid a primary challenge from an ultra-conservative “tea party” Republican in 2014 and his campaign website links to his media hits on Benghazi.
Obama seems to scent bullying of Rice and warned earlier this month that “if Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”
Senator Ayotte, a rookie often tipped for higher things, wants to build foreign policy spurs and the reflected glow of the McCain and Graham spotlight is a good place to start.
Rice, who would be the second female African American secretary of state, may also not be blameless, and could be paying the price for her sharp attacks on McCain when she was an Obama campaign aide.
There have long been whispers that her whip smart intellect is matched by an abrasive personality and she may have left herself too little wiggle room in her Sunday show performances.
But Rice has the most important currency in Washington — support from the president, who described her as “extraordinary” on Wednesday.
Rice risked sidelining a brilliant career when she backed then unknown Obama over Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton in 2007. Bill Clinton had ignited Rice’s rise and made her assistant secretary of state for Africa in 1997.
So how does the Rice row unfold?
Obama’s vehement defense of Rice seems to have boxed him in: if he decides now on someone else, he will be seen as caving to Republican pressure.
But choosing Rice would pour oil on the row over Benghazi, as he tries to broker a compromise with Republicans over a budget and debt showdown.
Rice’s situation is also raising new questions about the White House’s often shifting communications strategy after Benghazi.
Her television appearances dragged a supposedly apolitical official into the heat of the final days of a bitter election campaign when a campaign flack may have been a better choice.
Democrats will have 55 seats in the new Senate that is seated in January, so Obama would only need to win over five Republican senators to overcome a Republican filibuster. But senators like Collins would be crucial.
In one final twist to this Washington drama, the person who would preside over her nomination hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would be none other than her potential rival: Kerry.