Republicans have tried to paint Rice as weak on Iran. The argument put forward is that, in four years, she has produced only one sanctions resolution on Iran, and that she has been too cozy with China and Russia to compel them to accept a new round.
It's true that China and Russia have blocked a new resolution. It's true that the Obama administration has secured the adoption of fewer resolutions than the Bush administration, and that they have not succeeded in stopping Iran's nuclear drive. But the measures have inflicted considerable pain on the Iranian regime, which has seen its shipping industry struggle and its currency free fall. The Republicans could claim that the most effective elements of the Obama administration's sanctions policy -- the interdiction of Iranian vessels at sea and the financial measures -- were inherited by the Republicans. But then they would have to admit that they were succeeding.
Human rights questions
Republican efforts to question Rice's national security credentials have gained little public traction, in part because her positions on key issues like Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East are not dramatically different from theirs. But Rice has faced sharp criticism from human rights advocates, who feel that she is inconsistent in her commitment to universal values. "She tends to be strongest when the human rights violations involved are committed by U.S. adversaries," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, recently told me. "But she is less strong when violations are committed by U.S. friends, like Rwanda or Israel, or by governments more in the middle, like Sri Lanka."
Sri Lanka has never featured prominently in discussions on foreign policy in Washington. But the final phase of the countries decades-long civil war, which ended in May 2009, resulted in the largest case of mass atrocities under President Obama's watch. An internal U.N. review of the crisis blasted the U.N. Secretariat for failing to fulfill its obligation to protect civilians. But the report also cites the failure of the U.N. Security Council -- where Rice represented the United States -- to act decisively to stop the violence, which resulted in the slaughter of 40,000 to 70,000 civilians, mostly at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. (At the time, I wrote this about Rice's response.)
Here's an excerpt from the piece I wrote for the Washington Post in 2009:
When the government launched its final offensive this year against the country's Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it was Mexico and Austria that first raised the alarm in the Security Council. France and Britain sent their foreign ministers to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, to press the government to show restraint. The United States supported those efforts to draw attention to the crisis in the Security Council, efforts which China and Russia opposed. Eventually, the United States backed a compromise that allowed for discussion on the Sri Lankan conflict in the U.N. basement.
"The U.S. government remained relatively silent on the Sri Lankan crisis, especially in the early stages of the fighting," said Fabienne Hara, vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group. Its response to Sri Lanka "did not seem to match the commitment to preventing mass human rights abuses stated during the presidential campaign," she said.
Rice challenged that assessment, saying "my perception is that we spoke out very forcefully." She said that the United States had a strong ambassador on the ground in Sri Lanka conveying American concerns, and that the assistant secretary of state for refugees traveled there to conduct an assessment mission. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Rice said, had been personally focused on the issue. "I think that is an instance where our stand was clear, consistent and principled," she said.
The M23 problem
The Republicans have Benghazi. Human rights advocates have the M23. A former U.S. assistant secretary of state under the Clinton administration, Rice has long-standing and close relations with many African leaders, notably President Paul Kagame, the Rwandan general who led the armed insurgency that ended the genocide in 1994.
Kagame's government has been a friend of Washington since, but it's also been the target of U.N. investigations claiming it carried out mass reprisal killings in Rwanda and neighboring Eastern Congo. An independent panel, set up by the Security Council to monitor violations of a U.N. arms embargo in eastern Congo, concluded in a damning report this summer that the Rwanda military is sponsoring an armed mutiny, by a group calling itself M23, that is seeking to seize control of a huge swath of eastern Congo. In response to a major offensive outside Goma by the M23, which has now acquired night-vision equipment and mortars, Rice issued a series of tweets this afternoon saying she is "appalled" by the resumption of M23's military campaign. She proposed additional sanctions against the group's commanders, and expressed support for Congo's "efforts to repel the M23's offensive." But behind closed doors, Rice's team sought to remove language implicating Rwanda -- which has been accused by a U.N. panel of sponsoring the M23 -- in the operation, according to council diplomats.
"In my view she is too close the regime in Kigali," Congo's ambassador to France, Atoki Ileka, told Turtle Bay in September. "To be quite frank, I got the impression that they did all they could to protect Rwanda. And we came out publicly the pressure was there so they had to let it go. If we hadn't gone public I think the report would never have been made public." In an interview I conducted for the Washington Post in September, Rice said "it's not true" that she tried to block the report. She said that she merely asked for its release to be delayed to provide Rwanda a fair chance to respond and that she has forcefully criticized Rwanda for its alleged interference in Congo.