Scapegoating Susan Rice Does U.S. No Good

Since the challenges confronting U.S. foreign policy in President Obama’s second term are going to be significant — with moments of decision looming on Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, the fighting in Gaza and more — it would be helpful to get this next phase started on a reasonably bipartisan footing.

The president should know that there are Republicans willing to work with him in addressing these crises and that he will be stronger overseas if he has broad support at home. But Republicans also need to do their part to show that the partisan sniping of the recent campaign season is over and that they know it is time to get serious again. One place to start would be to back off their promises to oppose the nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of state.

I say this not because I carry a particular brief for Rice. Both she and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the two people most often mentioned for the position, are well-qualified. Were the president to choose either of them, the Senate should vote to confirm.

But the idea that Rice should be disqualified because of statements she made on television in the days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, strikes me as unfair. It seems pretty clear now that she based her statements on information the CIA provided at the time. That information proved erroneous, and why the CIA was giving faulty information to senior administration officials remains unclear. I haven’t seen persuasive evidence to support the theory that Rice’s statements were part of a coverup to hide a terrorist attack. The fact that Rice was working from information provided by the CIA would seem to undercut such a theory.

In any case, the big questions concerning the Benghazi attack are not about what administration officials said or didn’t say in the first few days that followed. Any further investigations ought to focus on why the attack came as such a surprise, why our personnel weren’t better protected and, most important, what we need to do to ensure that our diplomats in the field can continue doing their vital work in reasonable safety. There is also a larger question: whether the administration’s “light footprint” in Libya after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi was too light. These are issues that ought to concern the secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director and others responsible for our diplomats’ security as well as our broader foreign policy doctrine.

But none of this was under the purview of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It seems a big reach to suggest that Susan Rice, of all people, should be barred from another job in the Obama administration because of what happened in Benghazi.

With so many potential crises staring us in the face in 2013, the country doesn’t need a nasty fight over who said what when or a brutal confirmation battle that may result in a new secretary of state wounded from the start by a partisan Senate vote. It’s hard to see what national interest would be served by such a spectacle at a time when many around the world wonder whether the United States can get its act together.

Yes, liberals and Democrats have done the same in the past, voting against Republican presidents’ nominees and buying into conspiracies much wilder, and more damaging, than this. But why don’t we try to break the cycle and make an effort to restore some comity to the foreign policy debate? Republicans should let this one go and save their energies for the real problems looming before us.