Susan Rice: Why the UN Ambassador Made a Controversial Candidate

Critics faulted Rice for her remarks on Benghazi and her work in Africa.

December 13, 2012, 4:57 PM

Dec. 14, 2012 — -- United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice removed herself from possible consideration as secretary of state after becoming yet another player in the divide between the left and right.

Rice, who withdrew her name Thursday, has faced months of criticism over how she characterized the Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. She also has come under fire for her approach to dealing with African strongmen.

Rice, who is expected to meet with President Obama Friday afternoon, said she made this decision because she felt the nomination for Secretary of State "should never be turned into a political football."

"I have never shied away from a fight for a cause I believe in," Rice wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Post Thursday. "But, as it became clear that my potential nomination would spark an enduring partisan battle, I concluded that it would be wrong to allow this debate to continue distracting from urgent national priorities — creating jobs, growing our economy, addressing our deficit, reforming our immigration system and protecting our national security."

Rice became a target for conservatives when she went on Sunday morning current affairs shows such as ABC News' "This Week" following the Benghazi attack and failed to characterize it as a pre-meditated act of terror. Instead, she said it was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film produced in the United States and cited in the region as an example of anti-Islamicism in the West.

After it became clear that Rice's assertions were untrue and elements of the Obama administration may have known that to be the case, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Kelly Ayotte said they would do whatever they could to block Rice's possible nomination to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

"This is about the role she played around four dead Americans when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration -- and she's the point person -- is so disconnected to reality, I don't trust her," Graham said. "And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better. And if she didn't know better, she shouldn't be the voice of America."

Members of the administration defended Rice. At his testimony before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director, said Rice was speaking from unclassified talking points given to her by the CIA.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reiterated what Petraeus said outside his closed-door hearing before the Senate.

"The key is that they were unclassified talking points at a very early stage. And I don't think she should be pilloried for this. She did what I would have done or anyone else would have done that was going on a weekend show," Feinstein said. "To say that she is unqualified to be secretary of state, I think, is a mistake. And the way it keeps going, it's almost as if the intent is to assassinate her character."

Minutes after she announced her withdrawal from the process, Graham tweeted, "I respect Ambassador Rice's decision."

McCain's office released a paper statement saying, "Senator McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans."

In the op-ed, Rice defended the information she gave as the intelligence community's "best current assessment" of the attack available and unclassified at that time.

"It would have been irresponsible for me to substitute any personal judgment for our government's and wrong to reveal classified material," Rice wrote. "I made clear in each interview that the information I was providing was preliminary and that ongoing investigations would give us definitive answers."

Over the last few weeks, criticism of Rice had grown beyond her response to Benghazi to include a closer scrutiny of her work in Africa, where she had influence over U.S. policy during the Clinton administration.

Critics of her Africa dealings were not partisan -- but included human rights workers, journalists and some Africans themselves.

Among the most serious critiques was the accusation that she actively protected Rwandan President Paul Kagame and senior members of his government from being sanctioned for funding and supporting the rebels that caused Eastern Congo's recent violence.

An African diplomat confirmed to ABC News that Rice aggressively questioned recent U.N. investigative reports highlighting the Rwandan government's continued role in helping fuel the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rice downplayed the findings though outside Africa policy experts, even within the administration, corroborated the evidence presented.

She delivered a glowing, emotional tribute to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi following his death, calling him "an uncommon leader, a rare visionary, and a true friend to me and many." But Zenawi, while an ally to the United States, ordered the deaths of more than 100 peaceful protesters after the 2005 elections and jailed human rights activists and journalists -- including two Swedish journalists for two years -- for reporting negative stories.

Despite similar stories like this about Rice and her diplomacy on the continent, she has defenders who cite her introduction of programs that stressed investment over aid to the continent.

John Prendergrast, the head of the Enough Project who served with Rice in the Clinton administration, defended the ambassador's policies in a Daily Beast article, calling the criticism "surreal."

"The implication that Ambassador Rice -- who continues to work diligently on the Congo issue -- is somehow motivated to protect President Kagame because of guilt over the genocide or other theories is insulting," Prendergast wrote.

But one of the world's pre-eminent Congo experts, Jason Stearns, said he was opposed to Rice's possible nomination because, in his opinion, her approach to the decades-old crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo showed that her policies "lack nuance."

"She is guilty of myopia, shortsightedness and a lack of nuance," said Stearns.

Before her tenure as senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, Rice tried her hand in the private sector as a management consultant with McKinsey and Company, and before that she served Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis as a foreign policy aide during his 1988 run for president.

She is a Rhodes Scholar, Stanford graduate and native of Washington, D.C.

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