With her decision to withdraw from consideration as secretary of state, Susan Rice—and her greatest champion, President Obama—is finally bowing to the inevitable. Her supporters concocted any number of reasons to promote her ascension to the top floor of Foggy Bottom. She was, they said, being demonized by the right. She was being subjected to racism. She was just trying to please her superiors. And so on.
Don’t believe a word of it. The real problem is not that she bungled Libya. It’s that she should never have been ambassador to the United Nations in the first place—let alone become secretary of state.
Until recently, Rice was smoothly on track to become the Edmund Hillary of foreign-policy strivers. But unlike the legendary climber, she only glimpsed but never quite reached the summit. Her entire career has been based less on solid accomplishment than on her networking skills. In that regard, she exquisitely represents her generation, which largely consists of unwise men and women.
Even a cursory look at Rice’s résumé should induce some queasiness. Essentially, she was molded in Washington, D.C. She punched all the right tickets—National Cathedral School, Stanford, Rhodes scholarship, Brookings Institution. She is a perfect creature of the Beltway. But the downside is that there is scant evidence that she ever flourished outside the cozy ecosystem of the foreign-policy establishment.
It has not always been thus. Henry Kissinger produced serious books about international affairs. Further back, Dean Acheson was a successful lawyer. James Baker was both a shrewd lawyer and political operative whose wheeler-dealer skills translated well into dealing with foreign allies and adversaries. Now it’s not necessary to be all of these things at once. No one would claim that Hillary Clinton is a Kissingerian-style intellectual. But Clinton’s stature and political prowess allowed her to crack heads during the recent Gaza crisis.
What would Rice have brought to the State Department? The most she seems to have accomplished outside the foreign-policy world is to serve a stint as a management consultant at McKinsey & Co. Otherwise, she has produced no memorable books or articles or even op-ed essays. The most interesting thing about Rice has been the kerfuffle over her move to become secretary of state.
Throughout, her most distinguishing trait seems to be an eagerness to please her superiors, which is entirely consistent with how she rode the escalator to success. Want to avoid declaring that genocide is taking place in Rwanda? Go to Rice. Want to fudge the facts in Libya? Rice is there again. Obama had it right when he observed that she “had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received.” But why, as Maureen Dowd asked, didn’t she question it? The answer is simple: because she rarely, if ever, questions authority. Instead she has made a career out of catering to it.
Perhaps, then, it should not be altogether surprising that her record in Africa seems to have been one of catering to some of the most loathsome dictators in the region. She fell over herself to praise the late Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi in September. In a keen analysis in the National Journal, Michael Hirsh noted that she has come under severe fire from human-rights activists for her insouciance about Africa and that, “recently, during a meeting at the U.N. mission of France, after the French ambassador told Rice that the U.N. needed to do more to intervene in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rice was said to have replied: ‘It’s the eastern DRC. If it’s not M23, it’s going to be some other group,’” according to an account given by a human-rights worker who spoke with several people in the room. (Rice’s spokesman said he was familiar with the meeting, but did not know if she made the comment.)
Once again, this may not have been her personal predilection, but Rice was only too happy to try and bury foreign-policy problems rather than confront them.
Now that Rice has fallen short, she may be succeeded at the U.N. by her former antagonist Samantha Power, who originally reported that Rice had worked to whitewash events in Rwanda. Unlike Rice, Power has traveled extensively in dangerous regions, combining the professions of journalist and activist. She resembles a modern Rebecca West. Whether the acidulous Power can ultimately muster the diplomatic skills to surpass Rice will be one of the tantalizing mysteries of Obama’s second term. For now, it appears that Obama will select either John Kerry or Chuck Hagel to run the State Department. It will allow Rice to try and once more burnish her résumé. But the amazing thing isn’t that she failed to become secretary of state. It’s that Rice rose as high as she did.