The Revealingly Substance-Free Fight Over Susan Rice
(updated below - Update II)
Over the last months, Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in an intense fight over the suitability of UN Ambassador Susan Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Democratic Party institutions and pundits have steadfastly devoted themselves to defending her from GOP criticisms.
Virtually all of this debate has concerned Rice's statements on a series of Sunday news shows in September, during which she claimed that the Benghazi attack was primarily motivated by spontaneous anger over an anti-Islam film rather than an coordinated attack by a terrorist group. Everyone now acknowledges that (consistent with the standard pattern of this administration's behavior) Rice's statements were inaccurate, but in a majestic display of intellectual dexterity, progressive pundits claim with a straight face that public officials should be excused when they make false statements based on what the CIA tells them to say, while conservatives claim with a straight face that relying on flawed and manipulated intelligence reports is no excuse.
All of that is standard, principle-free partisan jockeying. It goes without saying that if this were Condoleezza rather than Susan Rice, the two sides would have exactly opposite positions on whether these inaccurate statements should be held against her. None of that is worth examining.
But what is remarkable is how so many Democrats are devoting so much energy to defending a possible Susan Rice nomination as Secretary of State without even pretending to care about her record and her beliefs. It's not even part of the discussion. And now that some writers have begun examining that record, it's not hard to see the reason for this omission.
Last week, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern extensively documented Rice's long record of cheering for US wars, including being an outspoken and aggressive advocate of the attack on Iraq, support that persisted for many years. In a New York Times Op-Ed yesterday, Eritrean-American journalist Salem Solomon condemned Rice's fondness for tyrants in Africa, while Black Agenda Report's Glen Ford argued - with ample documentation - that her supporters "care not a whit for Africa, whose rape and depopulation has been the focus of Rice's incredibly destructive career." A New York Times news article from Mondayseparately suggests that Rice's close ties to the ruling regime in Rwanda - that government "was her client when she worked at Intellibridge, a strategic analysis firm in Washington" - has led Washington to tacitly endorse its support for brutal rebels in the Congo.
Meanwhile, so-called "pro-Israel" groups have vocally supported her possible nomination due to her steadfast defense of Israel at the UN, hailing her as "an ardent defender of major Israeli positions in an unfriendly forum." It was recently discovered that Rice "holds significant investments in more than a dozen Canadian oil companies and banks that would stand to benefit from expansion of the North American tar sands industry and construction of the proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline," and that "about a third of Rice's personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel -- including companies with poor environmental and safety records on both U.S. and Canadian soil."
This is who progressives are devoting their energy to defending and the record they are attempting to further empower as Secretary of State. She's essentially the classic pro-war, imperial technocrat who has advanced within the Foreign Policy Community by embracing and justifying its destructive orthodoxies (unsurprisingly, one of her most ardent defenders, even now, is her former colleague at the Brookings Institution, the war-loving (though never war-fighting) Michael O'Hanlon).
It would be one thing if Rice-advocating progressives defended this record and this set of beliefs, or attempted to argue why she should be promoted despite them. But, almost without exception, they don't do either of those things. The minute it became clear that Obama wanted to nominate her and Republicans opposed her, they reflexively stood up to support her without any apparent regard for what she has done and what she believes. Put another way, they are devoting their energies to arguing for the political elevation of someone without the slightest regard for her beliefs. Isn't that bizarre?
While this behavior is partially explainable by partisan allegiance, I think the bigger factor is the way in which politicians are now adored as celebrities and our politics reduced to little more than reality-TV shows. Susan Rice is a relatively young, dynamic, impressive personality: an articulate and well-presented technocrat (indeed, after I watched her appear on a Sunday new show three years ago, back in 2009, I tweeted: "Susan Rice is an amazingly effective spokesperson - even when advocating bad polices - they should use her a lot more"). She has the sort of Foreign Policy Community careerist record which, in an ideal world, would be disqualifying given that Community's heinous performance, but which in our world is considered impressive and serious.
In other words, she's a rising political star. And a Democrat. And Obama likes her and wants to nominate her. And that is enough to galvanize Democrats and progressives into cheering for her and defending her and working to support her even though she is a standard Brookings war-advocate who has a record and a set of beliefs completely anathema to the ones they claim to hold.
I personally have little interest in devoting energy to working against Rice's nomination. In terms of her bad views and record, there's nothing special about her; as indicated, she's a fairly classic member in good standing of the bipartisan Foreign Policy Community. As I learned when I was part of the effort widely credited with preventing John Brennan from being CIA Director on the ground that he supported Bush-era rendition and torture policies - only to watch as he was named to an even more powerful position as Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser - Washington appointments are a symbol of bad policies, not a cause.
If it's not Susan Rice as Secretary of State, then it will be someone with an equally long record of defending US militarism and supporting the world's worst tyrants. Indeed, the person she would replace - overwhelming 2016 Democratic presidential favorite Hillary Clinton - was not only as steadfast in her public support for the attack on Iraq as Rice was, but also has at least as long and impressive a record in befriending the world's worst tyrants (Clinton, 2009: "I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family"). So it's unlikely in the extreme that preventing Rice's elevation would result in anything better: the same policies of imperialism and militarism will be administered by some other faithful technocrat.
But I certainly wouldn't devote my efforts to helping someone with this record and set of beliefs to acquire more power. Why would someone do that who doesn't share those beliefs and finds many of them misguided and repellent? It makes perfect sense for someone to defend Rice's possible nomination if they admire her record and beliefs, but those supporting her make almost no reference to any of that because, quite obviously, none of that has anything to do with the reasons they are cheering for her.
Several weeks ago, Cato's Benjamin Friedman comprehensively examined Rice's record and concluded: "The problem with making Susan Rice secretary of state isn't Benghazi. It's war." Specifically, she "has supported just about every proposed U.S. military intervention over the two decades"; he then argues:
"Susan Rice, as her backers note, is well-qualified to be secretary of state. But she isn't applying for an internship. Cabinet nominee's policy positions matter more than their resumes. The right knock on Rice is that as someone who supported a batch of needless wars, she is likely to support the next one."
But he also notes that "Rice's opinions on all these matters are little different from most Democratic foreign-policy elites, including most of the other people advising Obama about wars." That, to me, is the reason why actively opposing her nomination is mostly pointless, but it certainly should preclude support for it as well.
Last week at the Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Professor Howard French detailed Rice's record in Africa which, he said, "helped the US continue a Cold War-style approach to the continent - and aided a new generation of dictators in the process." In a 2009 New York Review of Books essay, he examined the US role in violence on the continent and Rice's closeness to tyrants.