14 Dec 2012

Susan Rice out: where now for Obama’s foreign policy?

Massachusetts senator John Kerry is almost certain to be nominated as America’s next secretary of state: a post he has wanted for years. Is he the right man for the job?

John Kerry (reuters)

A poltiical defeat for the White House? A barrage of pressure from the right, led by Republican senator John McCain, forced Susan Rice to withdraw her name from consideration for the top job at State, despite Barack Obama’s support.

That leaves John Kerry, the senior senator from Massachusetts, and longtime chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, to take over a job he has wanted for years.

John McCain, who led the attack on Rice, had held her personally to blame for spreading what he described as misinformation about the attack on US diplomats in Benghazi, which led to the death of ambassador Chris Stephens.

The fuss centred around what Rice said on television talk shows in the immediate aftermath, attributing the attacks to protests against a film about the Prophet Mohammed, although she had got her information from talking points on the crisis which had been circulated by the CIA.

President Obama described the onslaught of criticism which she was subjected to “outrageous” and challenged her detractors to come after him. In reality, McCain had threatened to become a constant thorn in the administration’s side, questioning every appointment, requesting hearings, calling witnesses.

Not worth a fight?

For the White House, it simply was not worth the fight: a sign of weakness for some, or a case of political expediency; Rice had also been criticised over her past support for controversial African leaders, and for owning shares in a company which was seeking permission to build an oil pipeline.

Whatever the case, Rice said her nomination would be too “lengthy, disruptive and costly”: leaving John Kerry destined for the Cabinet post he craves. As a source told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell: “There were two people on the list. Two minus one, is one.”

He called Ambassador Rice “an extraordinary capable and dedicated public servant” and said he had “felt for her”, as someone who had undergone his fair share of political attacks.

Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that the man who was trashed so comprehensively by the right, when he ran against George W Bush for the presidency in 2004, is now the man they are fully prepared to endorse to the highest foreign policy job in the land.

There is no doubting his credentials, from his European education to his distinguished service in Vietnam, more than three decades in the Senate, and his work as Obama’s unofficial envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But he was pilloried for flip-flopping over his support for the war on Iraq, for being an out-of-touch, patrician elitist, targeted by the now infamous “Swift Boat” political ad which set out to discredit his military record.

Now though, the climate has changed: Republicans have put word around that Kerry’s confirmation is a done deal, Senator Rob Portman insisting that he would be given an “easy time”.

All change?

A leading Republican, former senator Chuck Hagel, has also been tipped to take over from Leon Panetta when he steps down at the Department of Defence. While Susan Rice herself has even been mentioned as a possible national security adviser, a post which does not require any Senate approval.

President Obama told a local television station on Thursday night: “There’s no doubt Susan was qualified, (but) there are other people who are qualified as well.” He would not give away any names.

There is certainly no doubting Kerry’s experience, and his qualifications, but his appointment to the cabinet would create another major headache for the Democrats, when he steps down from his seat.

That would leave the way open for Scott Brown, who lost out to Elizabeth Warren in the November election, to take back the seat for the GOP: he has won one special election before, after the death of Edward Kennedy, and built up some considerable local popularity.

But the wider picture is the future of America’s foreign policy: what to do about Syria, Iran, the new Egyptian regime, Israel and Palestine.

All that is still President Obama’s path to forge, and if second terms are about foreign affairs, and leaving a legacy for the world, then political conviction, and a true sense of confidence, rather than is what will matter most.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News