Susan Rice has had a series of diplomatic triumphs as US ambassador to the UN. US President Barack Obama, an old friend, showed he has her back when last week he publicly challenged her Republican critics over the Benghazi controversy to “go after me” rather than her. She knew former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright from the age of 4.
And yet Rice is now fighting for her political future. Her chances of becoming the next US secretary of state — replacing Hillary Rodham Clinton — have been significantly damaged.
Senior Republicans, such as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have said they will oppose her getting the job, signaling a confirmation battle if Obama decides to nominate her. Some critics in the US media, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, have said she is unsuitable for the position.
The immediate source of a lot of the criticism is her appearances on Sunday morning television shows in September five days after the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans had been killed in Benghazi.
Her critics bitterly complain that she misled the US public by suggesting that the assault was the result of a spontaneous protest rather than an organized assault by affiliates of al-Qaeda. During the US presidential campaign, supporters of Republican candidate Mitt Romney seized on the issue to attack Obama.
The antipathy in Washington and elsewhere, though, is based on more than a series of TV interviews. While UN diplomats and US officials who have dealt with Rice praise the intellect of the 48-year-old former Rhodes scholar and graduate of Stanford and Oxford, they say she has won few popularity contests during her meteoric rise.
Diplomats on the 15-nation UN Security Council privately complain of Rice’s aggressive negotiating tactics, describing her with terms like “undiplomatic” and “sometimes rather rude.”
They attributed some blunt language to Rice — “this is crap,” “let’s kill this” or “this is bullshit.”
“She’s got a sort of a cowboy-ish attitude,” one Western diplomat said. “She has a tendency to treat other countries as mere subsidiaries.”
Two other diplomats — all three were male — supported this view.
“She’s not easy,” said David Rothkopf, the top manager and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy magazine. “I’m not sure I’d want to take her on a picnic with my family, but if the president wants her to be secretary of state, she’ll work hard.”
Indeed, along with a “no-nonsense” style, Rice has the most important ingredient for a successful secretary of state — a close relationship with the US president, Rothkopf said.
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, himself not known for mincing words, publicly admonished Rice after she said Russian calls for an investigation into civilian deaths in Libya caused by NATO were a “bogus” ploy.
“Really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council,” Churkin said, mocking Rice’s education at Stanford.
More immediately at the UN, she faces criticism from human rights activists and some diplomats because of US opposition to public criticism of Rwanda for its role in the worsening conflict in the Congo.
Rice, who declined to comment for this article, broke her silence on the Benghazi controversy on Wednesday, defending her September statements about the attack.
However, she did so on Thanksgiving eve when many people in the US were traveling and when her comments were likely to be overshadowed by news of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.