By: Samuel Ruddy
As John Kerry makes his way to becoming the next Secretary of State, one of the most important and informative events of the confirmation process has passed and is starting to fade out of memory: the vilification of Susan Rice. Her testimony in front of Congress about the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi was based on government agency-approved intelligence which turned out to be false, and her resilience in the face of the harsh criticism of top-ranking Republicans is probably one of the most interesting and revealing events in American diplomacy. This scandal gives the average American a glimpse into the nuances of American foreign policy in action, and its lessons should not be forgotten, especially not by those who attempted to criticize her.
To begin, Senator John McCain, the most prominent of Susan Rice’s detractors, had the following to say about her.
Susan Rice should have known better, and if she didn’t know better, she’s not qualified. She should have known better. I will do everything in my power to block her from becoming Secretary of State. She has proven that she either doesn’t understand or she is unwilling to accept evidence on its face…. She went out and told the American people something that was patently false and defied common sense.
This criticism was based on comments made on the news talk show circuit and in front of Congress around 5 days after the terrorist attack on the Benghazi embassy. Rice blamed the attack on a reaction to the incendiary YouTube-hosted trailer of the film The Innocence of Muslims, a theory that was being pushed by the White House and American intelligence at the time. McCain also pushed for a special investigatory committee to try and uncover the full truth about the matter, citing that “nobody died during Watergate… Nobody died during Iran-Contra”.
Setting aside McCain’s political gamesmanship in setting up a subcommittee for Susan Rice’s political defamation and through attempting to equate this scandal to Watergate, McCain does bring up an important consideration. Should Rice have told Congress and the people what the attack probably was, or should she have stuck to supposedly vetted and approved intelligence?
At that point, it did seem pretty strange that “normal protestors” would just happen to have military-style rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) with them. A terrorist attack seemed to be the only logical explanation at that point. True, terrorists may have been angered by the video and decided to attack during the protests. That would have at least made the White House’s position at least somewhat truer than it turned out to be. It turned out, though, to be a premeditated attack on the embassy that simply used the protests as cover, and US intelligence agencies made a pretty serious mistake. However, this does not mean that Susan Rice should have tried to put two-and-two together on her own. Sure, as a potential candidacy for Secretary of State, making the logical jump to labeling the attack as having been perpetrated by terrorists would make her seem like an astute and intelligent choice for America’s most important diplomat. But that doesn’t mean it would have been the best choice for the image of the departments that form the nation’s foreign policy or for the image of America as a whole.
First, as Susan Rice is the US’s representative to the United Nations, she had no responsibility in the intelligence gathering about the situation in Libya, and thus she should have no role in forming conclusions about what actually happened on the ground. She was not there, so why should she do anything but trust what intelligence professionals have briefed her on? On top of that, trusting those experts to do their job is all she should be expected to do. If she showed any doubt concerning the ability of America’s own intelligence gathering agencies, then her position as an influential foreign policy figure and image of America to the UN would immediately cast further doubt on the competence of American intelligence officers. If one of our own top diplomatic figures does not trust the information given to her by the CIA or other American organizations, why would the policymakers in any other nation? It would show a systematic weakness in the American foreign policy machine that would hurt our image in diplomatic and counterterrorism circles worldwide. It would be a weakness that could be exploited by America’s enemies and could sow the seed of doubt in even staunchest of allies.
In this regard, having members of the administration stick to this talking point until it was totally confirmed as a terrorist attack actually contained the damage of the poor response of America’s intelligence gathering functions to the attack on the embassy. Handled in this way, the Benghazi fiasco comes off as a one-time mistake of a nation caught off its guard, whether it was that simple or not. In this regard, Susan Rice did the right thing for the nation when she stayed in line with the White House in the face of derisive criticism. She probably knew that she was dooming her candidacy for Secretary of State, but she saved face internationally for America’s intelligence agencies.
This by no means implies that there should not be an investigation in to why American intelligence failed to the extent that this attack could blindside a nation on a day where national security is emphasized more than on any other day. It simply means that what Susan Rice did saved the diplomatic corps from an even longer trust-rebuilding process. After all, recovering trust after a freak mistake is much easier than having to start over again after revealing how flawed and untrustworthy the system is as a whole.