Susan Rice should be America's next secretary of state. At least, she should be if the president wants her to be. But just who takes over in Foggy Bottom is far from the most important decision President Barack Obama faces when it comes to his national security team.
Let's get the Rice question out of the way first. It was heartening to see that over the past few days, Republican opposition to her appointment seems to have softened. The attacks over her Benghazi statements were among the most egregious examples of attempting to shoot the messenger in recent U.S. political history. Benghazi was a tragedy, and it deserves a thorough investigation. Mistakes were made.
But they were not Susan Rice's mistakes, and there is no evidence that she did anything other than present the administration's talking points as asked. If there is fault -- and there surely is regarding security for U.S. officials in Libya, and there may be in the administration's seemingly politically motivated decision to put off acknowledging the obvious terrorist roots of the attack -- it lies elsewhere. That said, the biggest reason to shift the focus away from Benghazi is that it is a double distraction, both from the important business of putting in place a high-quality national security team and from the extraordinarily complex challenges posed by the spreading, interconnected crises currently bedeviling the Middle East.
The situation in the Middle East is more dangerous than it has been since the height of the Cold War, and it is only one of an array of profoundly complex challenges the president's national security team will face in the next four years. Virtually all -- from the rise of new powers to America's challenges at home, from the impact of new technologies to the need for new alliances and institutions -- will demand a kind of new thinking not seen in U.S. foreign policy in decades. It is the "what" and the "how" of this foreign policy that are at the moment more important than the "who."
Of course, people make policies, and the cocktail of personalities at the center of the policy-making process will be a key component in determining whether Obama is ultimately viewed as a creative change-agent in tune with his times or a disappointing vestige of the status quo, the latest American political leader to steer the ship of state by looking squarely in the rear-view mirror.
Especially because this president has already shown a strong pre-disposition to hands-on management and keeping his inner circle very small, picking people with proven access to him -- people he already trusts -- is so important. Rice's closeness to the president is her strongest asset. The relationship between top officials and the president is critical in all administrations, not just those with a tight inner circle like this one. Indeed, in the American system, the power of top officials rises and falls with their relationship with the chief executive. We've seen secretaries of state with great resumes -- hugely capable people -- be hamstrung by not being sufficiently empowered by their boss. There are few better examples of this than the plight of Colin Powell, or the degree to which Condoleezza Rice's close ties to President George W. Bush helped give her more clout, as foreign leaders knew she had the ear and trust of the boss in the way her more experienced immediate predecessor did not.