State of War
|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 Cambodia—but 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 fill—and 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 least—or, 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 House—in 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 fill—and 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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3. Because nothing she did with respect to Benghazi disqualifies her from the job. There remain many valid, pertinent, pressing questions about the Obama administration’s conduct in the weeks leading up to and the days following the September 11 attack that cost the lives of four Americans, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Given Stevens’s early warnings about how the consulate was unprepared for such an assault, why wasn’t more done to secure it? Why was help so slow to arrive when the diplomats who were pinned down there called for it during the siege? And why did intelligence officials, who now acknowledge that they believed the attack was a terrorist incident from day one, water down the talking points Rice was given before her appearances on the Sunday shows—changing a reference to Al Qaeda to the vaguer “extremists,” for instance?
But none of this has anything to do with Rice, who on the shows was doing nothing more and nothing less than conveying the information that had been declassified and that she was authorized to impart. Had Rice decided on her own accord to go off-script and reveal what she had learned from the still-classified portions of her intelligence briefings at the time, is there any doubt that many of the same Republican lawmakers pummeling her now as unfit to be secretary of State would be using that transgression to reach the same conclusion?
4. Because McCain is being a jackass—and Obama is sick of it. Arguably more than any other national figure, the senior senator from Arizona is driven in every aspect of his public behavior by personal pique. In the wake of the 2000 Republican nomination fight, when he believed Bush and his campaign had defeated him by nefarious means, McCain lunged to the center and became one of the sharpest thorns in the side of the new president from his own party. In the wake of the 2008 election, when he was soundly thumped by a Democratic challenger whom he regarded as a neophyte and a pretender whose experience and valor were no match for his own, McCain immediately shed all traces of mavericky independence and became one of Obama’s fiercest critics from the right.
Now into McCain’s crosshairs has come Rice, who routinely stripped the bark off him four years ago as one of Obama’s most quotable surrogates. (“His tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later; it is dangerous, and we can’t afford four more years of this reckless foreign policy” is just one vintage example of the form.) No one who knows McCain believes he has forgotten these brickbats or that they are not a substantial part of what is motivating him now. Nor does anyone close to Obama not suspect that, after four years of McCain’s truculence, he’s had quite enough of it, thanks, and is indeed sorta spoiling for a fight.
5. Because if McCain insists on pressing that fight, Obama will win. With 55 Democratic votes in the Senate now, the administration is all but assured of having a majority to confirm Rice if Obama puts her name forward. The only way to halt her nomination would be by waging a filibuster, and even that effort might not prove fruitful—since if Democrats were to remain united, only five GOP defectors would be necessary to shut it down, and in the current environment of Republican soul-searching, finding those five votes might not be all that hard.
For the sake of argument, however, imagine the contrary scenario. Imagine that McCain does decide to filibuster and that enough of his party rallies around his cause. Imagine the White House and Senate Democrats standing firm, demanding an actual filibuster instead of simply folding at the threat of one, as has become common practice. Imagine McCain and his colleagues compelled to take to the well of the Senate to read the phone book all night long—a bunch of old white guys standing in the way of the ascension of a young, talented, guilty-of-nothing African-American woman in order to score cheap political points in a fight that, eventually, they would be all but certain to lose. Imagine how that will help resuscitate the Republican brand. Imagine.
It’ll never happen, I hear you say—and you’re right, and that’s the point. Which is why I estimate there is a 79.4357 percent probability that Susan Rice will be confirmed early next year as secretary of State, and the vote won’t even be close. Just remember: You read it here first—and Nate Silver ain’t got nothing on me.
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State of War.