14 Dec 2012

Susan Rice: another victim of the Washington game

This week North Korea has successfully tested a three stage ballistic missile in a joint technological production with Iran, by expert accounts. Egypt may well be on the brink of civil war and Syria is disintegrating. 

The ability of the United States to intervene in all these events may be limited, but even so we should all be interested in who this country choses to be its chief diplomat.

Last night Susan Rice, the US ambassador at the UN took herself out of the running to be Hilary Clinton’s successor as Secretary of State. The news wasn’t altogether surprising. For weeks she had been sucked into the bitter partisan vortex that passes for Washington politics these days.  She was paying the price, in part, for a trap she didn’t see coming.

Back in September when Libyan extremists killed the US ambassador to Tripoli and two other Americans Hilary Clinton recused herself from appearing on the Sunday talk shows to explain the tragedy. Ambassador Rice, with prompting from the White House, eagerly stepped into her shoes and went on all five Sunday shows to explain how a demonstration against American interests, prompted by a defamatory film about the Prophet Mohammed made in California, had got out of hand and resulted in the burning of the US consulate in Benghazi.

This seemed like a plausible explanation at the time. There were similar demonstrations all over the Muslim world. Most of the press – including ourselves – bought into this story line as, crucially, did the CIA. We all turned out to be wrong. The attack had been planned by al Quaeda extremists. There was no demonstration.

In the weeks that followed this mistake fed into the bloodstream of a bitterly fought presidential election and Republicans used it almost obsessively to hammer the administration, claiming that ever since they had killed Osama Bin Laden they had taken their eyes off the al Quaeda ball.

They may have had a point but they undermined it by playing party politics. Nevertheless Susan Rice became the collateral damage.

But this was only the beginning. Articles began appearing in the press, including the New York Times, about how she had been too cosy with African dictators while serving as President Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

She was lambasted for being too strident and shrill. According to one anecdote she once showed her former boss, the late Richard Holbrooke, the middle finger during a heated argument. You could easily argue that these are all qualities America may wish for in her top diplomat.

I have interviewed Susan Rice on a several occasions and she also happens to be a mother and an alumni at the girls’ school that one of my children attends. At a parents’ evening she once famously said that her years at the National Cathedral School prepared her well for the toughest, meanest negotiations with the likes of North Korea or China.

But for all her toughness Susan Rice may have made the same mistake that Hilary Clinton once made when she was First Lady. She failed to appreciate the subtleties of the “Washington Game”, whose rules are so byzantine and vicious they make Quidditch look like a game of draughts.

Perhaps she was too strident and forceful with that strange but powerful – mainly men’s – club of American politics: the US Senate. This is the august body that needs to approve her nomination. This is the body where Republicans let it be known they would block her name.

Never underestimate the ego of a US senator. There are only a hundred of them, two from each state. They sit in vast offices with more staff than a British Prime Minister. Most of them think they are in the waiting room for the Oval Office even though the pampered nature of their position, which carries little if any executive power, has made them less fit for the presidential campaign than a governorship.

Barack Obama was the first US senator to become president since John F Kennedy. And both of them had spent so little time in the Senate they were still untouched by its debilitating charms. Most US senators are like fat cats that purr from their perch and need to be stroked. Gnarl at them at your peril.

This was a lesson that Hilary Clinton learned in 1993 when she tried to ram healthcare reform down their throats. It was the veteran Democrats, like the ancient Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who did most to oppose her. She had failed to stroke them. Ironically her political resurrection years later began with a seat in the Senate.

So Susan Rice, who may have gnarled too much, is gone. That leaves the next choice for Secretary of State: John Kerry, long serving Democratic senator from Massachussets, former presidential nominee and foreign policy veteran. He is certain to sail through the confirmation hearings. He will be amongst old friends.

The other big appointment of the new Obama administration, Secretary of Defence, will also go to a former senator, Chuck Hagel. He is a moderate Republican from Nebraska, one of the most affable schmoozers on Capitol Hill. His confirmation will doubtless be as smooth as butter.

Good luck to them. John Kerry may turn out to be an excellent Secretary of State. He speaks fluent, French and Italian. He is married to a Portuguese Mozambican. He has “foreigness” in his DNA. He has the smooth touch of a seasoned diplomat and he has certainly spent years playing the Washington game.

But will he be tough enough?  There was, after all, a reason why President Obama stuck with the choice of Rice for so long.

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