By Walter Shapiro
Before the initials CIA came to stand for Covert Intimate Affairs, the battle over the next secretary of state would have been the main event of post-election November. Normally, it doesn’t get better than a brand-name Washington struggle pitting the newly reelected president against the Republican senator he defeated in 2008 over filling the Cabinet post soon to be vacated by an ex-president’s wife.
Barack Obama’s ill-camouflaged inclination to name Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, as Hillary Clinton’s successor would normally be about as contentious as, well, a confirmation hearing for David Petraeus in 2011. Rice, an undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration, has by most accounts performed well in a job that pivots around the micro-wording of Security Council resolutions rather than grand geopolitical visions.
But all that good will evaporated when Rice, drawing the short straw as Obama’s designated foreign-policy spinner, dutifully made the rounds of the Sunday shows on Sept. 16, five days after the Libyan attacks. Repeating the White House line, Rice argued that, based on “the best information,” a “spontaneous protest” outside the American consulate in Benghazi attracted heavily armed “extremist elements” who murdered Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In John McCain’s splenetic view, Rice’s TV commentary smacks of a White House cover-up, since subsequent reporting has shown that initial accounts of a triggering protest were incorrect. As McCain put it Wednesday on Fox News, threatening to filibuster the nomination, “Susan Rice should have known better and if she didn’t know better, she is not qualified.”
At Obama’s first press conference since (gasp) June, the president displayed uncharacteristic moxie in his defense of Rice, who was a key foreign-policy supporter during his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. Obama called the attacks on Rice “outrageous” Wednesday and said that if the Republicans “think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me.”
All this posturing could be moot if Obama taps John Kerry for secretary of state, although the 2004 Democratic nominee now seems more likely to be headed to the Pentagon to replace Leon Panetta. (The secretary of defense has become one of the last remaining white-men-only jobs in government).
And even though one of the great political novels, “Advise and Consent” by Allen Drury, is built around a confirmation fight over a would-be secretary of state, this has always been one job that the Senate has given a president wide discretion in filling. For all the Iraq-war bluster over the appointment of Condoleezza Rice, Senate Democrats mustered only 13 votes against her in 2005, the highest number of votes against a secretary of state nomination since the early 19th century.
What makes all of this relevant now – before Obama has named a Hillary Clinton replacement – is that it underscores the illogic of most Senate confirmation fights. There may be hidden but valid strategic reasons to oppose a Rice Stuff nomination at State. But it represents a blame-the-messenger stretch even by Washington standards to ensnare Rice in the aftermath of Benghazi.
As should be obvious, the U.N. ambassador has nothing directly to do with embassy security, American covert operations in the Middle East or the flow of intelligence about terrorism. All Rice was doing in her television appearances on September 16 was reciting from talking points presumably prepared by the White House national security team based on information provided by the CIA and other agencies. According to reporting by Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius, the CIA was still clinging to its belief that the Benghazi attacks began with a spontaneous protest when Rice made her ill-fated rounds of the Sunday shows.
This is not to deny the mysteries that are swirling around the Obama administration’s response to Benghazi. All roads lead to Libya may be the unified field theory linking all current Washington scandals. The Wall Street Journal suggested in a front-page article Thursday that a major reason why Petraeus’ resignation was accepted with such alacrity was the CIA director’s determination to shield the spy agency from blame over Benghazi. The CIA’s release of its Benghazi timeline reportedly angered National Intelligence Director James Clapper, who then used the revelation of Petraeus’ affair as a cudgel to drive him out of government.
Most likely the Republican fury over Benghazi is over-wrought, but it is also easy to grasp. The often secretive Obama administration may be tempted to try to keep everything under wraps, aside from a few sanitized disclosures, in the name of national security. But while there are presumably intelligence risks that would accompany full disclosure, the alternative is letting (probably outlandish) conspiracy theories fester.
The confusion surrounding Benghazi may be attributable to the fog of war – or the fog of a presidential election campaign. In any case, the American people deserve to know what happened and whether the root causes were bad intelligence, bad luck or just bad public explanations.
Otherwise, at the most promising bring-us-together moment of his presidency, the newly reelected Obama will find himself endlessly battling over Benghazi as he attempts to forge a second-term national security team.
By Walter Shapiro