For all the talk of tax increases and debt-cutting, President Barack Obama’s biggest and most revealing decision this year may be which candidate he chooses to be his new secretary of state. It will tell us whether the president allows comfort to trump qualification.
The two candidates are Susan Rice, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both would be impressive, though they bring different strengths.
Rice’s advantage is that she has a closer personal relationship with the president, making her better integrated in the administration’s policy-making apparatus. Kerry’s edge is that he’s a heavyweight who would be more effective representing the U.S. around the world.
Rice has the inside track for now, and she got an unintentional boost last week from Senator John McCain, who was shooting from the hip, as usual. McCain, who is Kerry’s old friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, hounded Rice mercilessly over the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya. Her only sin was that on the Sunday shows in September she conveyed exactly what she was told by the Central Intelligence Agency about the attack on the U.S. consulate.
Just before his first post-election news conference, the president heard that McCain and his Sancho Panza, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, were threatening to block Rice’s nomination with a filibuster. This made the president angrier than he has been in months, according to a senior White House official I spoke with. “For them to go after” Rice and “besmirch her reputation, is outrageous,” Obama said at the news conference.
Obama says he hasn’t made a decision. But rejecting Rice in favor of Kerry would make the president look like he’s buckling to pressure from McCain, the Republican opponent he defeated in the 2008 election. And yet, if how something looks is the issue — and appearances are critical in diplomacy — then Obama should choose Kerry.
Kerry, a prominent senator for 28 years, would sail through his Senate confirmation hearings. Rice would be pinned down not just by Benghazi but by some of her past statements, in particular these two: In 1994, when she served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, she reportedly asked about the possibility of intervening in Rwanda: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”