It’s amazing what winning a re-election campaign will do for a president’s confidence and sense of security. In his first press conference since his decisive victory over Mitt Romney last week, President Obama responded to the harsh criticism of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice with a rare display of emotion.
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have launched a preemptive strike against Rice, who is being considered as the successor to retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over her characterization of events that transpired in Benghazi on September 11, when Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. In the days following the tragic incident, Ambassador Rice made several television appearances during which she attributed the attack to a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim internet video. The administration later acknowledged that it was an organized terrorist plot.
The senatorial dyad has intimated that Rice was part of a cover up and has pledged that they will do “everything in their power” to block her potential nomination to become the 68th secretary of state. Both McCain and Graham took to the airwaves on Wednesday to make their case against the suddenly embattled UN Ambassador.
McCain argued that Rice was “not qualified” to become secretary of state, and he called her claim that the deadly attack was a spontaneous demonstration “not very bright.” Graham said that he does not “trust” Rice and that she “would have an incredibly difficult time” winning Senate confirmation as secretary of state. The comments from Graham were a thinly veiled reference to a potential filibuster.
During his press conference, the president deflected most questions about his plans to replace several cabinet members that are stepping down over the next few months. However, when the topic of Rice’s candidacy for the state department was broached, he went into a spirited defense of the UN Ambassador, whom the president has known for many years and who impressed him with her performance at the UN. In the most dramatic moment of the press conference, the president told Republicans that if they “go after” Rice, then they will “have a problem” with him.
It was as angry as we will likely ever see this president. He is notoriously cool and detached even in the face of the most offensive and unfounded attacks. Indeed, the president has frustrated many of his supporters with what appears, at times, to be a passive and overly conciliatory posture toward intransigent Republicans. Emboldened by re-election, however, the president sounded a different tone on Wednesday, one that was more forceful and stern. Though he never raised his voice, it was apparent to anyone watching that the president bristled with contempt for long-time nemesis McCain and his sidekick Graham.
The president’s righteous indignation is certainly justified in this instance. While it is entirely appropriate for the Republicans to investigate what happened in Benghazi, there are a lot of questions to be answered. The scapegoating of Ambassador Rice is exactly what the President called it: outrageous.
First, any suggestion that Rice is not qualified to be secretary of state is patently ridiculous. Rice, a Rhodes Scholar, served on the staff of the National Security Council and as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs during President Bill Clinton’s second term. She was also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a foreign policy adviser to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign before being nominated to serve as ambassador to the UN in 2008. In short, her diplomatic pedigree is beyond reproach.
Second, McCain and Graham have completely misstated Rice’s role in this controversy. They called Rice the “point person” for the White House and an “essential player in the Benghazi debacle.” As ambassador to the United Nations, Rice has nothing to do with the state department or consulate security. One only wonders why she was ever put forward to talk about Benghazi, but that is beside the point. If Rice is guilty of anything, it is passing along faulty intelligence. But she can hardly be blamed for that. At the time when Rice made her television appearances, the collective judgment of the intelligence community was that the protests earlier in the week in Cairo, which had been inspired by the video, had also inspired protests in Benghazi. The CIA subsequently revised its assessment of the situation as additional information became available. The CIA definitely needs to explain what went wrong in Benghazi and, to that end, former Director David Petraeus, who recently resigned over a sorted extramarital affair, will be testifying before Congress this week. But Rice, who was careful to say she was relaying the “best information we have to date,” did nothing wrong and should not be denied an opportunity to serve as secretary of state.
The media have already drawn an interesting and instructive parallel to the last time an African-American woman by the name of Dr. Rice was up for the role of secretary of state. Of course, there is no relation between Susan Rice and Condoleeza Rice, who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush. When Condoleezza Rice was being considered for the position in 2005, she was criticized for her role in spreading the false intelligence that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. During an appearance on CNN in 2002, Condoleezza Rice said that while “there will always be some uncertainty” about the intelligence, “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” As we later learned, there were no such weapons in Iraq. However, both McCain and Graham publicly defended Condoleezza Rice’s appointment. McCain described her nomination as a “forgone conclusion” and said, “I can only conclude we’re doing this for no other reason than because of lingering bitterness at the outcome of the elections.” Condoleezza Rice was ultimately confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 85 to 13. Notably, then-Senator Obama was one of 32 Democrats to vote in favor of Condoleezza Rice.
The showdown over Rice’s nomination may be a proxy fight that could set the tone for how the president engages Republicans in his second term. President Obama hastened to add that he has not made up his mind about whether he would nominate Rice. Senator John Kerry (D-MA), chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is also a strong contender. But, in seeking out this confrontation, the president was sending a direct message to McCain, Graham and their Republican confrères that he is not going to be bullied or dissuaded from picking the people he wants to serve in his cabinet nor is he going to tolerate calumnious attacks on members of his administration.
And somewhere Shirley Sherrod and Van Jones are smiling, and wondering, “Where was this guy three years ago?”