Hint: It's Not Libya

The Real Problem With Susan Rice

It has nothing to do with Benghazi—and everything to do with her muddled position on Iraq.

12.10.12 11:55 PM ET

The debate about Susan Rice’s fitness to be secretary of state revolves largely around an interview she conducted in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Republicans say she downplayed al Qaeda’s role. Democrats say she reflected the intelligence community’s assessment at the time. Who cares? The Benghazi controversy tells us almost nothing about how Susan Rice sees America’s role in the world.

To understand what’s at stake in Rice’s potential nomination, it’s more useful to listen to a different set of interviews, conducted roughly a decade ago. Between the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2003, NPR’s Tavis Smiley interviewed Rice four times about the Bush administration’s looming war with Iraq. I’ve spent the better part of an afternoon listening to those interviews and I still can’t tell whether Susan Rice supported the war or opposed it. That’s the real scandal, and it says a lot more about Susan Rice, and the entire Democratic foreign-policy class, than anything that happened in Benghazi.

A little context. Barack Obama, you may recall, won the Democratic primary in 2008 in significant measure because as an obscure state senator he had had the wisdom—or dumb luck—to publicly oppose a war supported by Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and all the other major Democratic contenders for president. To distinguish himself from his competitors, Obama emphasized that the Iraq War was a product not only of Republican recklessness but of Democratic timidity. As his adviser Samantha Power wrote in a famous August 2007 memo, “The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign-policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve.” Power went on to argue that Obama’s promise to talk without preconditions to the leaders of Iran—a position Hillary Clinton labeled “naïve”—represented an extension of Obama’s bold break with his own party’s foreign-policy establishment.

After becoming president, however—and making Hillary Clinton his secretary of state—Obama reconciled with the establishment he had run against. And it shows. Although Obama’s foreign policy has been sound in many ways, it has not fulfilled his promise to break with the caution that led many Democrats to support the war in Iraq. That failure was evident in Obama’s inability to close Guantanamo Bay. It has been evident in his insistence that a nuclear Iran can be neither contained nor deterred. And most obviously, it was evident on Afghanistan, where, according to Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, Obama disliked the military’s plans for a troop surge but found himself boxed in by his own advisers.

Now, freed from having to seek reelection and having broken the GOP’s decades-old advantage on foreign affairs, Obama has the chance to finally make good on the promise of foreign-policy boldness on which he ran in 2008, if he surrounds himself with the right people. Which brings us to Susan Rice.

It’s not true, as some left-wing websites claim, that Rice “was a cheerleader for Bush’s invasion of Iraq.” But if, as Rice herself claims, she supported Obama in 2008 because on Iraq he made “the same unpopular choice I had made,” the evidence is hard to find. In fact, what’s striking about the four NPR interviews Rice did in the run-up to war was her capacity to avoid taking a clear position one way or another. At times, Rice does indeed sound skeptical of military action. In November 2002, she warned that there are “many people who think that we haven’t finished the war against al Qaeda and our ability to do these simultaneously is in doubt.” In December, she urged a “more honest assessment of what the costs will be of the actual conflict, as well as the aftermath.” And the following February, she said that “there are many who fear that going to war against Iraq may in fact in the short term make us less secure rather than more secure.”

But at others times, Rice sounded more hawkish, declaring on Dec. 20, 2002 that “it’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat. It’s clear that its weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully and that’s the path we’re on and hopefully we’ll bring as many countries as possible with us … even as we move forward as we must on the military side.”

Unable to decipher Rice’s view from these NPR interviews, I called two colleagues who worked with her at the Brookings Institution at the time. Neither was sure if she had supported the war or not.

How could a rising foreign-policy star like Susan Rice, faced with the most controversial foreign-policy issue of her career, avoid taking a clear position? Because avoiding controversial positions is what Democratic foreign-policy elites do. When the GOP holds the White House, and would-be Democratic foreign-policy appointees park themselves at places like Brookings or the Council on Foreign Relations, their primary imperative is to make sure they don’t say anything that would keep them from leaving those halfway houses when their party takes power again. That means bashing the other side as much as possible, but avoiding any public stance that could eventually become a liability. In the GOP, controversialists like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams get plum foreign-policy jobs. But in the Democratic Party, people who take contentious positions are weeded out. Take Rob Malley, the Clinton administration National Security Council staffer who argued that Yasir Arafat didn’t deserve all the blame for the failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000, and thus incurred the wrath of the American Jewish establishment. Or Michael O’Hanlon, who publicly supported the Bush administration’s troop surge in Iraq in 2006, and thus incurred the wrath of lefty bloggers. What both have in common is that they didn’t get Obama administration jobs.

Susan Rice isn’t the problem. She’s a symptom of the problem. The caution that Obama ran against in 2008 remains endemic to Democratic foreign policy. And if Obama succumbs to it in his second-term appointments, he’ll likely find himself again hemmed in by advisers who restrict rather than expand his vision. It’s funny that so many media reports now describe Susan Rice as controversial. If only. The real pity is that she’s not controversial enough.