WASHINGTON: Susan Rice was playing stand-in on the morning of Sept. 16 when she appeared on five Sunday news programs, a few days after the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would have been the White House’s logical choice to discuss the chaotic events in the Middle East, but she was drained after a harrowing week, administration officials said. Even if she had not been consoling the families of those who died, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Clinton typically steers clear of the Sunday shows.
So instead, Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, delivered her now-infamous account of the episode. Reciting talking points supplied by intelligence agencies, she said that the Benghazi siege appeared to have been a spontaneous protest later hijacked by extremists, not a premeditated terrorist attack. Within days, Republicans in Congress were calling for her head.
In her sure-footed ascent of the foreign-policy ladder, Rice has rarely shrunk from a fight. But now that she appears poised to claim the top rung — White House aides say she is President Barack Obama’s favored candidate for secretary of state — this sharp-tongued, self-confident diplomat finds herself in the middle of a bitter feud in which she is largely a bystander.
“Susan had a reputation, fairly or not, as someone who could run a little hot and shoot from the hip,” said John Norris, a foreign-policy expert at the Center for American Progress. “If someone had told me that the biggest knock on her was going to be that she too slavishly followed the talking points on Benghazi, I would have been shocked.”
At the U.N., and in posts in the Clinton White House, Rice, who turned 48 on Saturday, has earned a reputation as a blunt advocate, relentless on issues like pressing the government in Sudan or intervening in Libya to prevent a slaughter by Moammar Gadhafi.
She was a Rhodes scholar, has degrees from Stanford and Oxford, a Rolodex of contacts and a relationship with Obama sealed during his 2008 campaign. So her ascension to lead the State Department would be less a blow for diversity — she would, after all, be the second black woman named Rice to hold the job — than the natural capstone to a fast-track career.
Yet the firestorm over Benghazi raises more basic questions: Is Rice the best candidate to succeed Clinton as the nation’s chief diplomat? Does she have the diplomatic finesse to handle thorny problems in the Middle East? And even if Obama gets the votes for her confirmation, has the episode so tainted her that it would be hard for her to thrive in the job?
Rice’s supporters say she has compiled a solid record at the U.N., winning the passage of resolutions that impose strict sanctions on Iran and North Korea. Diplomats praise her energetic negotiating style, though her peremptory manner has bruised some egos.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., charged last week that Rice had misled the public and called her “not qualified” for the State post. But she has powerful defenders, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who said that Rice had done nothing wrong and was a victim of character assassination.