Four thoughts about Susan Rice’s decision to withdraw as a possible nominee for secretary of State:
1) Rice should not have been disqualified because of her now-notorious talk-show comments about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. As The Times observed in an editorial, her comments “faithfully tracked ‘talking points’ that were assembled by intelligence officials and only slightly edited by the White House and State Department.” The excision of references to a possible Al Qaeda connection were apparently made by intelligence officials, not the White House, and while Rice has been criticized for saying in one interview that Al Qaeda had been decimated, she also said: “Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or Al Qaeda itself, I think is one of the things we'll have to determine." Rice’s remarks on Benghazi were a bogus issue, and she paid a price with Republicans for Mitt Romney’s failure to capitalize on Benghazi in the campaign.
2) That said, Rice apparently bungled a charm offensive with senators who would vote on her nomination. Her missionary work was made more difficult by the Obama administration’s refusal to announce her nomination, which would have altered the political dynamics. Still, confirmation (or pre-confirmation) is a political process, and Rice seems to lack political skills. Whether a failure to charm senators translates into a deficiency in dealing with diplomats is another question, but Rice widely has been faulted over the past few weeks for being abrasive in a variety of settings. Is it fair for senators to take that into account in evaluating a prospective nominee? Of course. Democrats raised similar concerns about Rice’s predecessor at the U.N., John Bolton (though Bolton was not put forward as a potential secretary of State).
3) Beyond Benghazi, Rice found herself accused of trying to protect the leader of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, from international condemnation over Rwanda’s alleged role in violence in Congo. Then there were the complaints about her and her husband’s financial interest in the company seeking to construct the Keystone XL pipeline. The State Department oversees the permitting of pipelines that cross national boundaries. Of course, if Rice were confirmed as secretary of State she could sell her stock or recuse herself from any decision involving the pipeline. But the pipeline issue was one more complication. It’s not surprising that at some point Rice or Obama concluded that her nomination would be overly controversial. That is a disappointment for Rice, but not a tragedy for the nation. There other qualified candidates.
4) To Rice’s credit, she hasn't embraced the idea that she was the victim of either racial or gender discrimination. Some of her defenders have been less circumspect. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that critics who called Rice “incompetent” were using racial “code words.” Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus concluded that “I cannot help but believe that the attack had something to do with Rice’s gender, and her sharp elbows and sometimes sharper tongue. Men can have those flaws and still succeed; women find themselves marked down. This is a new, subtler sexism: Rice failed to fit the modern model of collegial, division-healing woman.” The latter objection about “subtler sexism” is debatable, but the suggestion that Rice’s race figured in the criticism of her is far-fetched and inflammatory. I hope it isn’t revived in the postmortem on Rice’s withdrawal.