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State of War

The Republicans have thrown down the gauntlet over the possibility that Susan Rice will replace Hillary Clinton. But the winner is already clear.

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Illustration by Thomas Fuchs  

It was Tuesday morning in Phnom Penh when Barack Obama decided to dispatch Hillary Clinton to the Middle East to try to help defuse the mounting conflict in Gaza. Clinton had been traveling at Obama’s side on his swing through Thailand, Burma, and Cambodiabut now duty called, and she was off to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo. So peripatetic has Clinton been as secretary of State that it seemed perversely fitting that what was billed as her final foreign trip with her boss would be cut short this way. And while news of cease-fire talks in Gaza came hours before she touched down in the region, the sequence of events was a vivid reminder of the stature that Clinton has gained in the job: For the past four years, she has been Obama’s go-to gal in any global crisis.

Clinton’s impending departure, in other words, presents the president with a massive pair of pumps to filland a domestic political skirmish far less bloody than, but nearly as bloody-minded as, the one in the Mideast. At the center of this conflagration is U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, one of the prime candidates to replace Clinton, and a series of Sunday-show appearances she made after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, in which she declined to call it a terrorist incident but instead deemed it a spontaneous protest that had been hijacked by clusters of extremists. For this, Rice is being flayed by John McCain, who has called her not  very bright and not qualified to be secretary of State, and pledged to do everything in my power to block her from the post, as well as being denounced by 97 House Republicans, who in a letter to Obama declared that Rice’s misleading statements about Benghazi caused irreparable damage to her credibility both at home and around the world.

Beyond the spectacle of gratuitous spleen-venting, does any of this Republican fulmination matter in the leastor, as the headline of a recent Maureen Dowd column in the Times put it, Is Rice Cooked? As a rule, your columnist avoids predictions, but in the spirit of holiday indulgence, I will make an exception here: Not only will Obama appoint Rice to succeed Clinton but she will be confirmed. And though I offer this forecast without the aid of polling averages to lend a patina of statistical certainty to the endeavor, I do believe there are at least five sound reasons to think it will come true:

1. Because every piece of available evidence suggests Obama wants her in the job. Among all his senior foreign-policy hands, Rice has always been the one with whom the president has shared both a strong personal and policy-related bond. There’s a real similarity to the relationship between George W. Bush and the other foreign-policy Rice, in that they’re close and they share a common view of the world and America’s role in it, says Jonathan Prince, who served as a senior adviser to Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell and who argues that Obama’s fiery defense of Rice in his postelection press conference made clear his inclination to give her State. I don’t know how you could see the way he reacted and not think that.

Rice has a number of other factors weighing on her side. Unlike John Kerry, the likeliest alternative, she has vocal champions inside the White Housein particular Valerie Jarrett. At the same time, few believe that Obama would want to have a less diverse Cabinet in his second term than he did in his first one, which means at least one of the Big Four departments being presided over by a woman. With Eric Holder now indicating that he will stay on as attorney general and current chief of staff Jack Lew likely taking over for Tim Geithner at Treasury, that leaves only State and Defense to filland a paucity of obviously qualified females to run the latter. Hence Rice at State with either Kerry, Rhode Island senator Jack Reed, or former senator Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon would seem a logical outcome.

2. Because Rice is manifestly qualified for the job.

Though the résumé she would bring to the job is not nearly as accomplished as Clinton’s, the comparison is more than a bit unfair to a woman seventeen years younger. Over the course of the past two decades, she has been a rising celestial body in the Democratic foreign-policy firmament, serving on the staff of Hillary’s husband’s national-security council and as his assistant secretary of State for African affairs. As U.N. ambassador, she has sometimes ruffled feathers with her bluntness, but at the same time earned high marks for her tangible achievements: helping to secure unprecedented U.N. sanctions resolutions against Iran and North Korea and playing a pivotal role in persuading a wary Obama to intervene militarily in Libya.


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