Throwing Rice

Barack Obama was right to defend Susan Rice from the GOP attacks. She's got the chops to be secretary of state.

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.

Republican senators, for their part, shouldn't judge any highly qualified potential nominee before even listening to the case for their selection. The tradition of deference to presidents as they select their cabinets is an important one -- as is the practice of investigation, and advice and consent. First and foremost, that process should be geared toward determining if Rice is qualified to be secretary of state. No question, Susan Rice's record has plenty of room for serious questions and opportunities for her to explain. But to assert even before a nominee is announced that the are "unqualified" -- as Sen. John McCain did this week -- is not becoming of the great traditions of the Senate.

The answer to this is a resounding "yes": Rice's distinguished diplomatic career includes a stint on the National Security Council in the 1990s; assistant secretary of state for African affairs (1997-2001), where she oversaw the management of 43 U.S. embassies and 5,000 Foreign Service personnel; and eight years as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Since 2009, the former Rhodes Scholar and management consultant has also served effectively as ambassador to the United Nations -- a position previously held by President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke -- who also would have been a strong contender for this position. On paper, then, Rice is as at least as qualified for the position as most of her recent would-be predecessors.

Moreover, Rice has already proved that she is a player on the global stage. She was largely responsible for building international consensus around the U.N. resolutions that enabled the Libyan intervention. Rice has also rallied global support for strong and sustained pressure on Iran, and has taken on Russia over the Syrian crisis, though her success in Libya may have made failure in Syria inevitable. To this point, she recently indicated a balance between interventionist ideals -- which she successfully achieved in helping to rally the U.N. Security Council to pass essential resolutions that paved the way for the end of the Qaddafi regime in Libva -- and realism, stating to the Foreign Policy on September 25 of Syria that: "I'm not of the view that this is a circumstance in which external military intervention is wise for the United States or others," she said. "I don't think that [the Responsibility to Protect] was ever a cookie-cutter response that was going to automatically be implemented everywhere things went badly."

If selected, Rice would provide both continuity in a critical moment of transition and the eyes of a foreign policy practitioner who came of age in an era of new global challenges. Crucially, Rice has the ear of the president -- and of other world leaders through her work at the United Nations.

While other likely candidates are equally credentialed and would likely do the job well, it is crucial that the secretary of state be immediately understood when engaging in public and private diplomacy overseas as someone that has a direct line to the president. History tells us that when the secretary of state is not in the immediate decision-making loop, this can make it more difficult to ensure the priority of diplomatic approaches to asserting the national interest. This is not to say other nominees would not enjoy this advantage -- but it is one that Rice would begin with from day one. Moreover, because of that access, she would also be in a strong position to represent the interest of the Foreign Service when interacting with other key agencies of government. She would thus be well-equipped to return America's diplomatic corps to its proper role after a decade in which military influence dominated decision-making.

Of course, Obama may yet select a wildcard candidate as his next secretary of state. And there remains a strong case to be made for other serious candidates for this position -- particularly Sen. John Kerry -- all of whom would serve America with distinction. But Rice merits the respect that her service and qualifications deserve and it is to Obama's credit that he has stood by her and recognized her achievements. It is entirely appropriate that her name is under serious consideration.


National Security

Cut (a Deal) and Run

It's past time to negotiate with the Taliban.

Amid the scandal that felled David Petraeus and engulfed Gen. John Allen, public attention has focused ever so briefly on the continuing war in Afghanistan. Yet, as the United States slides toward an open-ended military commitment to the country -- and Afghanistan slides ever closer to full-scale civil war -- scrutiny of our abundant failures there has not increased.

This follows a familiar, but depressing pattern. During the 2012 campaign, Afghanistan received barely any mention by either presidential candidate. Troops were coming home, the Republicans couldn't find much traction criticizing administration policy, and even the president's liberal critics were seemingly more enraged by his drone policy in Pakistan than a war that has killed more than 1,000 soldiers -- and countless Afghan civilians -- since President Obama took office.

In retrospect, this was probably a good thing for Obama, since over four years of his presidency there has been no single policy more chronically adrift and more poorly handled than Afghanistan. In December 2009, Obama handed responsibility of the war to the generals and their star-crossed dreams of population-centric counterinsurgency. Despite some near-term tactical successes, their failure to account for a resilient and tenacious insurgency, a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, and an ineffectual partner government has led to stalemate.

But with his final election behind him, Obama has an opportunity to plot a new course -- toward a political settlement with the Taliban.

During the campaign Obama and Biden regularly said the war in Afghanistan was winding down and troops were coming home in 2014. There was some truth to this statement as undoubtedly there will be many fewer American troops in the hinterlands of southern and eastern Afghanistan. But it also covers up some unpleasant truths -- like the fact that counterterrorism operations will almost certainly continue, and that a U.S. presence, as large as 25,000 troops, will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in his confirmation hearing Thursday morning to become the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford acknowledged as much, noting that counterterrorism operations will continue after 2014.

In other words, contrary to campaign trail protestations, the Obama administration has put the country on the path toward an enduring military commitment in Afghanistan. But if the last four years have shown us anything, it is that there is no military solution to the war. Rather, this complex conflict, which includes elements of a civil war, a foreign intervention, and a proxy conflict, will require a political settlement and acceptance by the United States and Kabul that the Taliban must be given the opportunity to play a role in the country's political life. To some, the notion might seem heretical, particularly considering the Taliban's obscurantist views, their atrocious record while in power, and their continued brutal insurgency. But the Taliban is not going away. They reflect a genuine strain of Afghan society. Better that their ideas be tested in a political forum than imposed from the battlefield.

While the Obama administration has rhetorically embraced the idea of political reconciliation, it has expended far too little political capital to make it an actual priority. If the United States is serious about leaving Afghanistan in better shape, it must take a number of key steps in the next few weeks and months.

First, the United States must shed any pre-conditions for talks and sit down in earnest with the Taliban. While there have been numerous contacts and talks about talks, U.S. dialogue with the Taliban and its representatives has lacked presidential commitment. Further, these efforts have been disconnected from war fighting and planning. For three years -- time that could have been devoted to pursuing a political settlement -- the United States has consistently and unsuccessfully sought to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. That myopic approach must end.

Second, the United States needs to revive the much-discussed supervised transfer of Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar or another mutually acceptable location. The administration considered this move earlier this year but it ultimately failed because of both pushback from Capitol Hill, but also divisions within the Taliban insurgency. When details of the potential transfer and prisoner swap became public, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein, bluntly noted her objection, likely foreshadowing much greater congressional opposition if the move went forward.

With the election over, the administration should revive this effort while introducing other potential confidence-building steps, negotiating local ceasefire agreements and taking Taliban fighters off target lists, in the hopes that they produce a genuine breakthrough with the insurgents.

Next, the administration should appoint a high-level presidential envoy and provide that person with the authority and flexibility to lead negotiations with Taliban representatives. One possibility would be George W. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, who has worked in recent years alongside John Podesta, former head of the Center for American Progress and chief of staff to President Clinton, to promote a negotiated settlement with the Taliban.

Of course, opening negotiations is no guarantee of success. In fact, like many we are far from confident about their ultimate success; and even if a political track is successful, it might take several years to negotiate a settlement and withdrawal.

But the risks of pushing forward with political reconciliation are minor and the potential upsides are significant. Moreover, there are credible signs from the Taliban and from within the Quetta Shura that suggest genuine interest in negotiations, at least among certain segments of the insurgency. This includes the Eid statement from Mullah Omar in August 2011, which acknowledged direct contacts with the United States, as well as numerous revelations of actual backchannel communications between the United States and representatives of the Taliban. A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (based on interviews with Taliban officials) indicated a willingness among segments of the Taliban to renounce al Qaeda, negotiate a cease-fire, move away from some of the more draconian policies that were put in place when the Taliban were in power, and even accept a long-term U.S. military presence in the country.

Such statements and views are not unique, and these positions have been conveyed through numerous other backchannels. Furthermore, with a continuing U.S. military presence and support post-2014, many Taliban leaders have come to the realization that negotiations might be the only path to rid themselves of the foreign occupiers. A serious outreach would clarify fundamental questions about the Taliban and their intentions, and their ability to enforce a political settlement on a fragmented network of insurgencies.

It would also finally test the fidelity of the Karzai government to its stated objective of a negotiated solution to the war, particularly in light of its often-schizophrenic approach to the issue. Indeed, perhaps the greatest impediments to peace are the old Northern Alliance figures within the Kabul government, who reject any possibility of a political deal with the Taliban. The ambivalence and at times hostility to engagement among many within the Karzai government was encapsulated by the August 2011 leaks of secret contacts between the United States and Taliban emissary, Tayyeb Agha, which effectively scuttled the momentum of those talks.

Political reconciliation could also improve U.S. relations with Pakistan.

Since 2009, U.S. policy toward Afghanistan has operated at cross-purposes with Pakistan and has enflamed an already tenuous bilateral relationship. Indeed, Islamabad's embrace of the Taliban insurgency has meant that that we are basically fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan with Pakistan. But, while Pakistan is hardly blameless, the Obama administration has never fully appreciated its interest in Afghanistan and its genuine fears of regional encirclement.

Recognizing that Pakistan's Taliban allies will play a role in Afghanistan's political future is one way to assuage Pakistani fears. Admittedly, even if such concerns are accommodated, Islamabad might still not take yes for an answer. But only a serious commitment to the process will clarify everyone's true intentions.

Beyond that, however, curtailing fighting in Afghanistan could also ameliorate the issue that roils the U.S.-Pakistan relationship more than any other: the drone war.

The fact is, the vast majority of drone strikes in Pakistan are aimed not at high-value al Qaeda targets, but rather at low-level Taliban foot soldiers. According to the New America Foundation's database of drone strikes, Taliban militants are six times more likely to be targeted than al Qaeda. The single best way to ramp down the use of drones would be to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Considering the controversy created at home and abroad by the use of drones in Pakistan, this is a win-win.

For far too long, the Obama administration has ceded oversight of the war in Afghanistan to the military -- with predictably disastrous results. With the election now in the rear view, the president has an opportunity to fix a policy that promises continued instability -- and a U.S. presence there -- for many years to come. There's no reason for him not to take it. We owe it to our soldiers who have toiled and died in this conflict, and to the Afghan people who have suffered under more than 30 years of war.