In his first press conference since the election, on November 14, President Barack Obama made a forceful defense of his ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who increasingly appears to be the favored candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. The public display of support caught some analysts by surprise, both because they assumed the position was likely to go to someone else -- presumably Sen. John Kerry -- and because they thought her role in the Benghazi tragedy, repeating administration talking points that later turned out to be false, would make Senate confirmation extremely difficult.
But by any reasonable measure -- qualifications, record, and capacity to do the job effectively -- the case for Susan Rice is strong. It is therefore appropriate that President Obama stood by his ambassador -- both in the second presidential debate and in his news conference.
Yesterday, the president was clear: "I don't think there's any debate in this country that when you have four Americans killed, that's a problem, and we've got to get to the bottom of it and there needs to be accountability. We've got to bring those who carried it out to justice. They won't get any debate from me on that," he said. "But when they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me." But a number of Republicans have gone after her nonetheless. As Sen. Lindsey Graham said in response, he has "no intention of promoting anyone who is up to their eyeballs in the Benghazi debacle."
Despite Graham's and others' best efforts to use Rice as a billiard ball to keep the Benghazi story alive, there is no evidence that she is "up to her eyeballs" in anything -- let alone the Benghazi fiasco, which she had virtually nothing to do with. What we do know, is that she did precisely what any U.N. ambassador is supposed to do: convey the administration's position based on the information that is available at the time.
There is no doubt that the attacks in Benghazi occurred against the backdrop of the inflammatory anti-Muslim video, which had global resonance and required a global response -- appropriate for the U.N. ambassador. Moreover, her specific comments on "Face the Nation" and other Sunday talk shows were based on an intelligence timeline that had been provided to her by the administration and which reflected what was known at the time. As the Washington Post reported on Oct. 19, Rice's talking points had actually been prepared for the House Intelligence Committee, which evidently found them credible enough.
If anything, Rice and the intelligence community might be faulted for having to go public with what was a tentative intelligence analysis. Perhaps the administration can be faulted for putting anyone on the national talk shows to discuss the attack while the intelligence was itself evolving -- seemingly as they spoke. But if they hadn't, the outcry would have been in the other direction: people would have been demanding to know why the administration wasn't sharing all the information it had.
As the president said yesterday: "[F]or them to go after the U.N ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous." Whether or not Obama selects Rice as his next secretary of state (and, for the record, he said that he hadn't made a determination yet), it is reassuring to see a commander-in-chief stand up for his representative at the United Nations and for the professionals in the intelligence community working with the best information they had.