The news that Susan Rice will be named to replace Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security adviser is not surprising in the least–indeed, it was close to a sure thing as soon as Rice’s name was dropped from consideration to be secretary of state. But there is irony aplenty in this promotion, and it explains why the New York Times is wrong to cast the appointment as “a defiant gesture to Republicans.” The Times joins many commentators on the left in being completely confused by the complicated politics of l’affaire Rice, so it’s worth reviewing.
Rice’s stock began to drop because of her own attempt to raise her profile. When Hillary Clinton was permitted by the Obama administration to evade accountability for her failures that led to the Benghazi terror attack, the administration needed someone to go on the Sunday morning political talk shows and push false talking points to mislead the American people on the causes of the attack. Rice was happy to step in, hoping to prove herself to the Obama White House and increase her chances vis-à-vis John Kerry to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom. But the false talking points proved understandably controversial, and put Rice at the center of the storm. What happened next is what seems to have the Times so baffled.
Rice or her allies floated her name as Obama’s choice to be the next secretary of state hoping to build momentum for her (though it’s possible she was actually Obama’s first choice). At the same time, Republicans in Congress were trying mightily to get the administration to answer for its failures in Libya and its decision to mislead the public on the attack. They were also hoping to get the media–which had been so embarrassingly in the tank during the fall election season that they were attacking Mitt Romney over Benghazi–to do their jobs and cover the story. Neither would play ball.
But then, they had a breakthrough. Lindsey Graham and John McCain threatened to attempt to block Rice’s nomination to State until they got answers. “I cannot imagine promoting anybody associated with Benghazi at this point,” Graham had said on CBS’s Face the Nation. It was likely a hollow threat, but the Hail Mary worked: the press grudgingly paid attention and the administration started engaging the GOP. The issue snowballed publicly when Obama gave a tetchy and overly defensive press conference that further piqued the interest of the press–and encouraged McCain and Graham to continue to press the issue of Rice’s nomination.
Graham didn’t actually mean he couldn’t imagine promoting anybody involved in the Benghazi episode. One of the officials who played a role in manipulating the Benghazi talking points that Rice repeated was State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who has just been named for a big administration promotion that requires Senate confirmation. Yet Graham issued a statement praising Nuland designed to speed her confirmation through the Senate. The point of what Graham was doing was to focus attention on Benghazi. Threatening Rice’s nomination was succeeding on that front, so he just continued doing so even though he probably wouldn’t have been able to stop Rice’s nomination if she were actually nominated.
So why did Obama drop Rice’s name from contention? Because the administration needed a scapegoat that wasn’t Hillary Clinton, whom he has been helping build support for a presidential run, and because the confirmation hearings for Rice would have forced the administration to talk more about Benghazi. Obama was hoping the issue would go away.
Graham’s bluff worked. But not before something coldly and typically Washington took place. When Rice became the center of controversy, Hillary Clinton saw an opportunity. She doesn’t get along with Rice, and didn’t want her to step in as the next secretary of state. So she began making her preference that Rice’s name be dropped from contention clear. Her friends and allies in the liberal media took the cue, and began assailing Rice in harshly personal terms far beyond anything Graham or McCain were saying. That gave Obama cover to ditch Rice.
Graham didn’t really mean it when he said he intended to stop Rice’s nomination, but the nomination was derailed anyway. Obama didn’t mean it when he stepped in to defend Rice, because he was merely trying to shut down the conversation and dropped Rice when that failed. In the end, hearings were held on Benghazi and more information came to light about the talking points, preventing both the Obama White House and Clinton from avoiding the controversy after all.
So promoting Rice to national security adviser isn’t a “defiant gesture” aimed at Republicans at all–Graham and McCain are only interested if the position requires Senate confirmation and thus enables them to control the conversation. It was never about stopping Rice; in fact, Graham and McCain would have been much happier had Obama gone through with Rice’s nomination to State and forced the public hearings.
Additionally, McCain and Graham tend to be pro-intervention on foreign policy, and would probably prefer Rice’s internationalist instincts to virtually anyone else the Democrats would be expected to appoint national security adviser. Clinton probably doesn’t care much either, since what she really wanted was to stop Rice’s nomination to State, and she did so. Rice deserved much better than the treatment she got from the Obama administration, but she probably understands that like the rest of this saga, that’s politics.