For weeks, Republicans have directed criticism over the Obama administration’s handling of the terrorist attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens at an official who seemingly had little to do with the fatal lack of security in Benghazi — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
Their justification: Her presentation on the Sunday talk shows, in which she gave the administration’s initial, erroneous assessment that the attacks stemmed from the anti-Islamic film that had stirred up earlier demonstrations in Cairo, was designed to mislead the American people.
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina had seemed to soften their criticism of Rice, considered President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But last Tuesday, McCain, Graham and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte said after meeting with her they are even more dissatisfied with her role, though she conceded her September statements were wrong.
Graham also illustrated the Senate’s corrosive tit-for-tat culture by likening the situation to the way Democrats (including Obama) blocked John Bolton’s nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration, adding that he is as dissatisfied with her answers as the Democrats were with Bolton’s.
Unfortunately, this dispute, which may stem from Rice’s frequent criticism of McCain as “reckless” during the 2008 campaign, obscures two more important questions: Who was responsible for the lack of security in Benghazi? Is Ms. Rice the best choice to be the nation’s top diplomat?
State Department officials acknowledged at an October congressional hearing that they rejected appeals for more security in Libya. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb said she opposed keeping a special security team in Tripoli and noted it would have been too far away to help, an hour by air but a dozen hours by land.
The Tripoli embassy’s top security officer added that, given the ferocity of the Benghazi assault, a few extra guards “would not have enabled us to respond.”
Presumably, a complete accounting will come from a nonpartisan investigative board headed by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a top official in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Meanwhile, Republicans keep suggesting the administration covered up the true nature of events in Benghazi because, at the height of the campaign, it wanted to avoid undercutting its contention it has made great progress in combating terrorism.
The GOP criticism seems centered on Rice’s Sept. 16 television appearances, which apparently was her only part in the events surrounding the Benghazi attacks. While not explicitly threatening a filibuster, both Graham and Ayotte talked of putting “a hold” on any Rice nomination pending receipt of further information.
“Before anybody can make an intelligent decision about promoting someone involved in Benghazi, we need to do a lot more (investigating),” Graham said.
Given the GOP’s poor election showing among minorities and women, a high profile fight to block a qualified African-American woman’s nomination would seem a questionable course politically.
Meanwhile, the focus on Rice has obscured the fact that another candidate has as good or better credentials for the job. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been an invaluable Obama ally and an important unofficial foreign envoy, especially in dealings with Afghanistan.
As a longtime senator, his confirmation would be far smoother, and he doesn’t bring Rice’s potential baggage. Besides Benghazi, that includes a reputation for a prickly personality and what critics call a history of protecting Rwanda from charges of human rights abuses, both while assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the 1990s and at the United Nations.
Obama not only seems to prefer Rice but may feel the GOP attacks require him to show he can stand up to pressure by picking her. Still, though she only deserves minimal blame for the way the Benghazi affair was handled, he would save himself some grief by picking Kerry.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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