Interventionists Republicans Oppose Interventionist Rice

Why should neoconservative lawmakers prefer John Kerry to become secretary of state?

President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, senior director for multilateral affairs, and Susan Rice, permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attend a memorial service at the United Nations in New York, September 23, 2009
President Barack Obama confers with Samantha Power, senior director for multilateral affairs, and Susan Rice, permanent representative to the United Nations, before they attend a memorial service at the United Nations in New York, September 23, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

When Hillary Clinton retires as secretary of state in January, President Barack Obama may nominate United Nations ambassador Susan Rice to replace her. Several Republican lawmakers have been highly critical of Rice in recent weeks, however, even if those same lawmakers share her interventionist foreign policy views.

Although Republicans cannot block Rice’s appointment in the Senate, they can stall it. Politico reported earlier this month that they would much prefer Massachusetts’ senator John Kerry over Rice. The president is supposed to consider him for either the position of secretary of defense or state, although Kerry has made clear that he would only accept the latter.

Among the most critical of Republican legislators have been South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Arizona’s John McCain. They chastise Susan Rice for the misleading comments she made after the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya was attacked in September. Rice appeared in television interviews the Sunday after the attack to describe it as “a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo,” the Egyptian capital where earlier in the week demonstrations had been staged outside the United States embassy against an anti-Islam film.

It has since become clear that there was no such demonstration in Benghazi. The CIA considered the attack on the diplomatic post there, in which four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed, a terrorist attack the day after. So did the Libyan authorities.

Graham and McCain believe that Rice deliberately misled the public and should not be nominated for the nation’s top diplomatic post while there are questions about her motives — if at all.

However, Rice is closer to Graham’s and McCain’s foreign policy views than Kerry. As William Kristol, a neoconservative commentator and editor of The Weekly Standard, said on Fox News Sunday this weekend, when asked why he preferred Rice of Kerry, “I think Susan Rice has been a little more interventionist than John Kerry.”

Rice has been a leading advocate of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine which holds that American military power should be deployed for humanitarian reasons. During the Bush Administration, she called for intervention in Sudan’s civil war to protect civilians in Darfur. She supported the war in Iraq, although she was critical of the occupation. As United Nations ambassador, she was a strong proponent for intervening in Libya last year. Rice’s liberal internationalist views correspond roughly with Graham’s, Kristol’s and McCain’s neoconservatism. So why do the senators oppose her?

Rachel Maddow volunteered one theory on the left-wing cable news network MSNBC on Tuesday night: if Kerry is nominated, a special election would have to be held for his Senate seat and Republicans may hope to win it.

Although Massachusetts is one of the most Democratic states in the country and reelected President Obama by a margin of 23 percentage points over his Republican challenger Mitt Romney earlier this month, incumbent senator Scott Brown was defeated by just eight points by Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren. In a special election, conservative turnout is likely to be relatively higher which could give Brown a chance to return to the Senate. “So,” according to Maddow, “the Republicans says, emphatically and repeatedly and to any reporter who will listen to them, ‘We prefer John Kerry over Susan Rice for this job, please.'”

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