Obama stands by as Rice is hounded out of secretary of state bid


AMERICA:The Orwellian process by which information is dispensed by the administration is a neglected aspect of the Susan Rice saga

A pack of Republican senators hounded the US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice out of a possible nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and Rice’s old friend and mentor, President Barack Obama, let them do it.

Rice’s sin was to appear on five television talk shows on the Sunday following the September 11th attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi. Like the street-smart politician she is, Clinton declined to appear on the shows.

Rice is the grand-daughter of Jamaican immigrants who worked hard to educate their children. She won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and was appointed assistant secretary of state for Africa in Bill Clinton’s administration. She supported Obama rather than Hillary in the 2008 campaign.

The Orwellian process whereby information is distilled and dispensed in the Obama administration is one of the more neglected aspects of the Rice saga. The White House, Pentagon, state department, CIA and other intelligence agencies negotiate an agreed stance on every issue, then distribute “talking points”, which officials follow blindly.

Regardless of the department where they attend daily briefings, journalists are treated to the same watered-down palaver.

Rice did not stray from the talking points she had been given for the Sunday talk shows, portraying the Benghazi attack as a “spontaneous” reaction to a video that derided the Prophet Muhammad.

Less than two months before the US presidential election, the Obama administration wanted to emphasise its victories over al-Qaeda. Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, portrayed Benghazi as proof that al-Qaeda was not vanquished, and accused the Obama administration of a cover-up.

A decade has passed since another well-educated African-American woman called Rice – Condoleezza – said the “smoking gun” in the search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction might be “a mushroom cloud”.

Rice was George W Bush’s national security adviser then. When Bush chose her to succeed Colin Powell as secretary of state, no one held the “mushroom cloud” quote against her.

For Democrats it has been galling to see the same Republicans who swallowed the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq hook, line and sinker ganging up on Susan Rice because she parroted intelligence agency talking points on television.

Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to block Rice’s nomination if Obama chose her. Senator John McCain disparaged the UN ambassador as “not very bright”.

Just five weeks ago, in his first post-election press conference, Obama sounded macho when he defended Rice. If Graham and McCain wanted to pick a fight, he said, they knew where to find him, but they should stop trying to “besmirch the reputation” of Susan Rice “because they think she’s an easy target”.

The White House attempted to mollify the Republicans by sending Rice to Capitol Hill for two days to talk to them. Things got worse. Senator Susan Collins, considered a moderate Republican, accused Rice of “deciding to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign”.

Collins introduced a new accusation: that Rice had not provided adequate security for US embassies that were attacked by al-Qaeda in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

The damage was compounded by press reports that Rice’s investment portfolio includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies involved in Iran’s oil and gas sector.

The revelations sat uncomfortably with Rice’s drive for tougher sanctions against Iran at the UN.

On Thursday Rice sent a letter asking Obama not to consider her for secretary of state because “the confirmation process would be lengthy, disrupting and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities”.

Obama dropped her like a hot potato, saying “her decision demonstrates the strength of her character and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first”.

In the midst of Obama’s battle with Republicans over the fiscal cliff, Rice’s possible nomination had become too much of a distraction. Her withdrawal means Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, is most likely to succeed Clinton.

The Republicans will have got what they wanted: a chance for outgoing Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who was defeated by Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren, to take Kerry’s vacant Senate seat.

Obama may announce his new national security team as early as next week. With Rice out of the running, it is a safe bet the new secretaries of state and defence, and the new CIA director, will all be ageing white men.

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