During the brouhaha over George W. Bush’s nomination of John Bolton to serve as UN ambassador, I felt that the president ought to be represented by the person he had selected in the job. At Via Meadia we feel the same way in the debate over UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s possible promotion to be secretary of state. If the president on full reflection sends in her name, and there are no obvious, fatal deficiencies in her credentials or record, then the Senate should confirm the president’s choice.
But as a practical matter, the next secretary of state is going to have to have good relations, or at least decent relations, with opposition senators. She is going to need their support for a whole range of measures, and since a two-thirds majority of the Senate is required for the ratification of treaties, she will not be able to advance key parts of the president’s agenda without a good working relationship with the opposition.
Both Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton worked very hard to build bridges to the opposition and, wherever possible, to depoliticize the debate over foreign policy in the upper chamber. The next secretary of state will need to do the same thing.
Whether Ambassador Rice’s attempts to build better relations and win the confidence of key Republican senators succeed is directly related to her ability to do the job that the president wants to give her. In particular, she needs to meet with members of the Foreign Relations Committee and see whether it’s possible to build a good working relationship with those senators. If for whatever reason she can’t get this done, then the president should think long and hard before appointing her to a job in which she may not be able to succeed.
If the president is genuinely committed to her candidacy, he ought to be helping her build those relationships. Instead of criticizing the senators who oppose her, the White House should reach out to them. The campaign is over, and President Obama will not be running for reelection. The president has everything to gain from turning down the political heat over foreign policy. He wants his next secretary of state to succeed, and there’s no way to do that without the ability to work with conservative Republicans in the Senate.
Turning to the question of Ambassador Rice’s possible nomination and confirmation: Her statements on television after the Benghazi attack are not the real issue, though she needs to reassure key senators that the information they get from her will not pass through a partisan filter. To fulfill its constitutional duty of providing advice and consent on foreign policy, the Senate needs to be confident that the information it gets from the administration, any administration, is real.
But beyond the television comments, the issue concerns the administration’s policy in Libya, and the competence of the overall American response to the deteriorating situation in North Africa. Ambassador Rice may have supported that policy, but the responsibility for it is President Obama’s, not hers.
The administration as a whole needs to consult more deeply with both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate about its apparent policy shift from extricating the United States from past engagements in the Middle East to a new policy involving a deeper U.S. role in Middle Eastern politics. American policy in Libya, Syria, and Egypt is becoming more important, expensive and controversial, and the Senate as well as the country needs to know more about what is in store.
Rather than arguing about what Ambassador Rice said on television about the Benghazi attack, the White House and the Senate need to be discussing what the United States should do now in an increasingly volatile but strategically vital region. The future is much more important than the past.
Both the Senate and the White House should be doing everything possible to move this discussion to a higher level. The Middle East isn’t a partisan question. Both Republicans and Democrats can be found on all sides of the extremely complicated questions surrounding American policy in the Middle East. With Syria boiling over, the Israeli-Palestinian issue still hot and the Iranian nuclear file moving toward some kind of a climax, building bipartisan support on Capitol Hill must clearly be one of the next Secretary of State’s priorities.
President Obama begins his second term as a seasoned foreign policy leader. He has the opportunity in a second term to make a real impact on the world. What he doesn’t need now is a bitter, partisan fight over the confirmation of his Secretary of State.
If Susan Rice is his choice for the job, the President needs to figure out how to make her confirmation a less divisive and contentious affair. If trust is an issue, and Senate critics fear that Ambassador Rice puts her duty of loyalty to the President above her duty of candor to the Senate, then the real problem lies between the President and the Senate rather than between the Senate and Ambassador Rice. She can’t fix that problem; only the President can. As Ambassador Rice continues to meet with Republican senators, trying to win them over, the White House needs to reinforce her efforts with a sustained effort to engage those critics. It is a time for stroking, not arm-twisting.
Managing relations with senators has been one of the most difficult, time-consuming and important responsibilities of secretaries of state going back to Thomas Jefferson’s occupation of that office when George Washington was president. It is one of the world’s most high profile cat-herding positions. As Ambassador Rice meets with her critics on Capitol Hill, she is doing more than trying to smooth over a political dispute. This is a real-world test both of her skills in one of the most important elements of the job she wants and of the White House’s commitment to do what it takes to back her; if she has trouble getting Republicans to back her own confirmation, what are her chances down the road of convincing them to ratify treaties and support the administration when the going gets tough overseas?