By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN
Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.
Three senior Republican lawmakers may have come away "concerned" from their meeting with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. But beyond the specific debate about the Benghazi incident, and the continued concerns of critics including Senator John McCain, there looms a larger issue of whether she would be an appropriate choice as secretary of state in the second Obama term.
Nearly 100 House Republicans have now come out against her, joining several prominent GOP senators. They criticize her as either untrustworthy or incompetent, with insinuations that she is too much of a partisan to represent the country as a whole on the international stage. President Obama’s unwillingness to back down in the face of their criticisms, meanwhile, risks creating a new and unnecessary partisan wedge in Washington at just the moment the country needs its leaders to work together.
Yet, as a former colleague and friend of Susan Rice (though also a veteran of political battles against her, as I supported Hillary in 2007 while she co-led the Obama foreign policy team, and I supported the surge in Iraq while she opposed it) I would ask Republican friends to relent. To be sure, there is a valid debate as to whether Rice, Senator John Kerry, or someone else should succeed Hillary Clinton as the nation's next top diplomat (Admiral Mike Mullen and another Clinton come to mind). Every candidate has his or her respective strengths and limitations for a job that is inherently more complex and challenging than anyone can truly be fully prepared to undertake. But Rice is a solid candidate and would be a fine secretary.
For those who see Rice as somehow untried, untested, too young, or too much of a predictably partisan Obama loyalist rather than an independent thinker, they should review the track record of her work over the years. After serving on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council and State Department, she was at Brookings, where I am now a senior fellow, from 2002 through 2008 and her record of published work is still available there. It shows that she was creative, forceful, and in fact ahead of either party in many of her views. For example:
- Rice called for much more attention to weak and failed states than either party was typically prepared to provide, in terms of foreign assistance and support for peace operations.
- But her concern for such states was not limited to the softer tools of diplomacy and aid. For example, she had a long and consistent track record of proposing much tougher sanctions, or more, against the genocidal Sudanese regime during the Darfur tragedies of the mid-2000 decade.
- In 2004 and early 2005, long before then-Senator Barack Obama made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy vision, she wrote important opinion pieces calling for direct talks with extremist regimes like Iran or North Korea. Anyone who believes this reflected a naïveté in her thinking about how to address such rogue states, however, need only witness the way she has orchestrated campaigns of pressure and sanctions against both in her current job. Meanwhile, she disagreed with President Bush’s construct of an axis of evil and sought ways to handle these dangerous actors more productively.
It is also important to put Benghazi in broader perspective. Rice did make some mistakes on the now infamous September 16 Sunday talk shows about the issue. But they were surely not intentional or malevolent, and need to be seen in perspective. The Libya debacle was a tragedy, but in the scheme of modern world history, a relatively minor one. The challenges in Libya remain largely as they were before the killings of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans; the importance of Libya to the broader Middle East remains limited in scale in any case. This is not the issue on which the region or the world will turn in the months and years ahead.
Contrast that situation with another impressive young leader named Rice, the former secretary of state under President Bush. When Condi’s name was put forward to the Congress in 2005, Democrats could have complained that she had, as national security advisor, led a broken policy process that left a huge mess in Iraq and disqualified her from cabinet-level rank, and also been part of a faulty public presentation of intelligence as well, this time concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
It was not simply that the Iraq war may have, in some eyes, been a mistake. But the country had no clear single policy, as it embarked on that campaign, of what political endstate we sought after Saddam’s demise or of what tools we were prepared to employ in the field to achieve it. Talk of bringing (most) troops home by the fall of 2003 echoed uncannily what European policymakers had said at the outset of World War I in 1914 – and was proven equally wrong. We had no real plan or capacity to stabilize the country after Saddam's downfall, and chaos as well as insurrection ensued.
The poor political and military planning for the Iraq war was due primarily to Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and his supporters. But Condoleezza Rice’s job as national security advisor was to be sure that inconsistencies were identified and competing views somehow reconciled. She failed to do this, with much weightier consequences for the country than Benghazi will ever cause. Yet the Senate rightly confirmed her, recognizing that many others shared the blame for these problems, and giving her a chance to learn from her mistakes and improve – which in fact she did in the next post.
The lesson here is clear: if President Obama decides he so wishes it, this Rice deserves a promotion, too, and the Senate should confirm.