Desperately Not Seeking Susan

Desperately Not Seeking Susan

Several Republican senators continue to oppose the possible nomination of Susan Rice, currently the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to be secretary of state in President Obama's second term. Their opposition stems largely from Ms. Rice's repeated insistence, five days after terrorists murdered four Americans at a U.S. facility in Libya, that the slaughter stemmed from spontaneous Muslim rage over an amateur video. Sen. John McCain at one point called Ms. Rice "unfit" for the job.

To assess fitness, one might look at those who served previously as secretary of state. More than one has said or done foolish things, or served without notable distinction. 

Former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey on whether U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is qualified to be secretary of state. Photo: Associated Press

In 1929, Henry Stimson dismantled the nation's only cryptographic facility, located in the State Department, with the airy observation that gentlemen don't read one another's mail. (He sobered up by World War II, when as secretary of war he oversaw a robust code-breaking effort.) More recently, Clinton administration Secretary of State Warren Christopher diminished the office by making several futile pilgrimages to Syria, where he once waited on his airplane for over half an hour in Damascus before being told that Syrian dictator Hafez Assad was too busy to see him. Assad calculated correctly that the slap would be cost-free.

By this modest standard, some might find that Susan Rice is fit. But moral fitness is also relevant, and it is in that category that the Benghazi episode is relevant.

The president has said that Ms. Rice should not be criticized because she "had nothing to do with Benghazi" and so couldn't have known better when she gave her false account. According to Mr. Obama (and to her), she simply repeated talking points provided by an amorphous and anonymous "intelligence community."

But Ms. Rice did know at least a couple of things. She knew that she had nothing to do with Benghazi. She knew that after the attack the president insisted that U.S. leaders not "shoot first and aim later" but rather "make sure that the statements that you make are backed up by the facts." She knew that the video story line was questionable, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence) and administration officials had already suggested publicly that the attack was al Qaeda-related. And she knew that the president had a political interest in asserting that al Qaeda wasn't successfully attacking senior American officials but was instead "on the run," as he maintained on the campaign trail.

Senators might therefore ask Ms. Rice why she was put forward to speak about Benghazi, and what part her personal ambition might have played in her willingness to assume the role known during the Cold War as "useful idiot."

Ms. Rice might also be asked what she knew about al Qaeda's operations in Libya. As a member of the U.N. Security Council and its "Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee," she is privy, for example, to information about the al Qaeda-affiliated Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is under sanctions and, according to the council, "maintain[s] a presence in eastern Libya."

Senators might also explore Ms. Rice's broader record at the U.N. Why, for example, did she think it was appropriate to absent herself from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's September speech to the General Assembly, the purpose of which was to offer the global community a painstaking explanation of why Iran must be stopped before it can weaponize its growing stock of enriched uranium.

Then there is the matter of U.S. participation for the past three years in the U.N. Human Rights Council, alongside such paragons as China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia (soon to be replaced by Pakistan, United Arab Emirates, Ivory Coast and Venezuela). Ms. Rice has continually defended America's presence on the council while boasting to Congress that the U.S. "succeeded in getting Iran to withdraw its candidacy last year." She omitted that, in return, the Obama administration stood aside while Iran was elected to the U.N.'s top women's rights body, the Commission on the Status of Women. 

.ReutersSusan Rice at the United Nations on June 7

Faced with the Human Rights Council's obsessive condemnations of Israel, Ms. Rice told Congress in April 2011 that "the results there were worse when America sat on the sidelines. . . . Israel was relentlessly bashed." America's "engagement and leadership," she said, "are paying dividends." Yet two weeks earlier, the council had concluded its March 2011 session by adopting more resolutions bashing Israel than at any other session in its history.

In February 2011, Ms. Rice vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning Israel for building settlements, but she voiced agreement with the resolution's substance in extreme terms, even touching on construction inside existing settlements and within Israel's capital. "Israeli settlement activity" has "corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region," she said, adding that it "violates Israel's international commitments [and] devastates trust between the parties. . . . [W]e agree with our fellow council members—and indeed, with the wider world—about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity."

This month, asked to comment on plans by Human Rights Council "experts" to create a special "investigation unit" and report on America's use of drones as violations of international law and possible "war crimes," Ms. Rice said mildly that the U.S. has "questions about the appropriateness of this approach but we will look at it on its merits."

On the critical issue of Iran's nuclear program, Ms. Rice has been able to achieve only one sanctions resolution, in June 2010, and with less support than any of the multiple Security Council resolutions passed during the George W. Bush administration.

With respect to the ghastly scenario in Syria, Ms. Rice's efforts in the Security Council have been stunningly meager. The Russians (with whom America supposedly "reset" its relationship) and the Chinese have her thoroughly stymied.

Other examples, of both her inexplicable absences from the U.N. and her inconsequential presence, could be adduced. And though the president, not the U.N. ambassador, makes foreign policy, one is entitled to ask how a Secretary Rice would view the acts and omissions of Ambassador Rice.

Amazingly, the other person most frequently mentioned as a possible secretary of state is Sen. John Kerry, who in the 1970s not only threw away his military medals and testified that his fellow soldiers in Vietnam were war criminals, but also said during a 2004 presidential debate that the U.S. shouldn't use its military power without invoking a "global test" and garnering international approval. So all this may be a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils—but at a minimum Americans should know fully what they are choosing.

Ms. Bayefsky is director of the Touro Institute on Human Rights and the Holocaust. Mr. Mukasey served as U.S. attorney general from 2007-09 and as a U.S. district judge from 1988 to 2006.