John McCain Ends Up Getting What He Wanted

Photo illustration courtesy of Donkey Hotey / Flickr

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who on Thursday withdrew her name from consideration for Secretary of State, was the assistant secretary of state for Africa when I was working in the Clinton White House. She was vivid and direct — very striking for a diplomat. Even then, she had her fans and her detractors.

I was a fan. At the end of the Clinton presidency, Rice was honored at the White House — along with former National Security Advisor Tony Lake and White House Senior Director for Africa Gayle Smith — for her role in ending the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

This was an especially tragic war — a pointless war of pride between two poor countries that didn’t have one life to spare or a dollar to waste but couldn’t bring themselves to back down without the help of the United States.

Nobody can be more charming than Susan Rice, but that can change depending on conditions. I learned from talking to the other two on the team that Susan was assigned to dealing with “the leader known to be difficult.” She had a glare that could make her the negotiating equal of a head of state at a time of war. She once came out of a meeting, spitting: “That (expletive) questioned my manhood!”

Rice made some 15 trips between the two capitals in the summer of 1998. She and the team were slammed constantly in the papers in both countries — called by one head of state or the other “biased,” “dishonest,” “inexperienced,” “in-over-her-head” — whatever suited the politics of the moment.

She continued to be harshly criticized by both sides until they had a peace agreement. Then at the signing ceremony at Algiers, they thanked Rice and the team for “not giving up on us.”

So Susan Rice has known for a long time what it means to have her character and her competence distorted and attacked to suit someone’s ambitions.

Arizona Senator John McCain, in one of the more curious political tantrums recently thrown in this town, launched a preemptive campaign against Susan Rice for secretary of state, calling her “unqualified” based on public statements she made on Benghazi that tracked, as former CIA director David Petraeus confirmed, the unclassified account provided by the intelligence community.

McCain is one of the most unpredictable men in Washington — capable of displaying the greatest candor and the highest character of anyone in Congress, but capable also of sudden and surprisingly aggressive politics. So how would it serve McCain to take on a not-yet-nominated candidate for secretary of state?

First, it’s a shot at Obama. Obviously, the wounds of a losing a presidential campaign run deep, and seeing Obama win again could not have had pleasant associations for McCain. Going after Rice, who is personally close to the President, is a way to attack Obama on foreign policy, while also daring the president to either push Rice forward into a distracting and polarizing confirmation battle, or let her withdraw, making the president look weak or disloyal.

Second, McCain wants to be a bigger player in foreign policy. He had let it be known that he wanted a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He got what he asked for last Monday, which put him in a position to create hell for Rice in her confirmation hearings. This intensified the stakes for McCain. If Rice became secretary after McCain tried to derail her, McCain might not have had the access and influence he’d like at state.

If, on the other hand, McCain could force Susan Rice to withdraw her name from consideration, the next most likely nominee would be Senate Foreign Relations Chair John Kerry, McCain’s long-time friend and fellow Vietnam vet. McCain’s access and influence at the State Department would rise. It looks like the senator may get what he wants.

Meanwhile, the good news, and there is some, is that Rice continues at the U.N., where on Wednesday, the day before she withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state, she faced off with the Chinese ambassador in a closed-door session of the Security Council to discuss responses to North Korea’s ballistic missile launch. Although the missile passed over Okinawa and prompted Japan to put its armed forces on alert, the Chinese ambassador Li Baodong declared that North Korea’s test constituted no threat to regional stability. Rice looked at him and said: “That’s ridiculous.”

That’s the kind of American candor even John McCain would admire.

Photo illustration courtesy of the gifted and talented Donkey Hotey.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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