President Barack Obama buoyed Susan Rice's hopes for becoming the next U.S. secretary of state last week, putting her Republican critics -- including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) -- on notice that he will not be deterred by their "outrageous" threats to block her nomination over controversial comments she gave on the Sunday morning talk shows following the Benghazi attack. "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 Rice's potential nomination has set off a frenzy of commentary on her qualifications for the job, and not only from Republicans. Rice got some sharp jabs from more liberal commentators, including Slate's Fred Kaplan and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, who argued that Rice should be denied the top diplomatic assignment, not because of Benghazi, but because of her generally undiplomatic personality. Even a Russian foreign ministry official anonymously weighed in, telling the Russian daily Kommersant that Rice, who once expressed disgust at Moscow's protection of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, is "too ambitious and aggressive" and that her appointment would make "it more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington."
Riling the Russians would hardly constitute grounds for blocking Rice's confirmation, particularly from the likes of McCain, who denounced Russia as a bully during its 2008 war with Georgia. Democrats have rallied to Rice's defense, with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) accusing Republicans of engaging in character assassination, while a group of House Democrats contended that Rice is the target of racist and sexist campaign.
Even a prominent Republican commentator, Robert Kagan, said it's time for Republicans to move on. "The idea that Rice should be disqualified because of statements she made on television in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, strikes me as unfair," Kagan wrote in the Washington Post. "I haven't seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice's statements were part of a cover-up to hide a terrorist attack. The fact that Rice was working from information provided by the CIA would seem to undercut such a theory."
Lost in the debate about Benghazi is the fact that Rice's Sunday morning briefing provided little insight into what Rice has actually done during her four years as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in her previous stint as senior national security aide in President Bill Clinton's White House, or as his assistant secretary of state for African affairs. So, here are the eight things you need to know about Susan Rice in case she becomes America's next top diplomat.
Why Benghazi hasn't stuck
The most damning lapse in the Obama administration's handling of the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi appears to be the State Department's failure to respond to repeated requests from the ground for increased security. By all accounts, Rice does not bear personal responsibility for those decisions, which look particularly ill-considered following the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. But Republicans have nonetheless questioned her fitness to serve as the top U.S. diplomat on the grounds that she intentionally spun the American public in a series of Sunday morning interviews, saying that the attack was likely a spontaneous response to the broadcast of an Internet video portraying the Prophet Mohamed in a negative light.
McCain has pointed to the fact that the head of the Libyan National Assembly informed CBS News that the attack was "pre-planned" in the same program that Rice contended it was likely a spontaneous reaction to the film. Rice's account -- which subsequently unraveled -- fit the administration's election narrative that it had trounced al Qaeda. Indeed, President Obama boasted in his address to the U.N. General Assembly that he had brought al Qaeda to its knees. "Al Qaeda has been weakened and Osama bin Laden is no more," the president said in his speech at U.N. headquarters this September.
My Washington Post colleague Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker column, initially gave Rice two pinocchios for her briefings, but then provided a more sympathetic take on her performance in response to the attack from McCain, whom he noted had defended Condoleezza Rice from allegations that she had cooked the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It may very well be determined that Rice spun her presentation to emphasize the supposedly spontaneous nature of the attack, and downplayed a possible role for al Qaeda.-- though she was careful enough to leave open all possibilities in her remarks. But there is no evidence that she lied, and the administration has leaked a contemporaneous intelligence talking note that is consistent with her televised remarks. So, unless evidence emerges that demonstrates she had good reason to question the accuracy of those talking notes the Republican attack on Rice will come across as unfairly partisan. But in the end, this may have more to do with the politics and procedures governing Senate confirmation hearings than the merits.