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Susan Rice’s decision to step aside as an unofficial Secretary of State candidate is a political blow for President Barack Obama, but one he should not rue.Ms Rice wasn’t only felled by her handling of the Benghazi crisis, when she thoughtlessly recycled CIA talking points on Sunday talk shows, claiming that the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others US diplomats sprung from a protest against an anti-Islamic film.
She made her case her typical stridency, which often served her well, but on this occasion came back to bite her, not for the first time.
Rice will not be missed in European capitals, where officials found her talented and super-smart but abrasive and a touch sharp-tongued. Some felt she was simply not diplomatic enough to be America’s top diplomat.
The death knell of her ambitions was probably sounded by a New York Times story on Monday, which detailed how she failed to put pressure on President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to stop fomenting violence in Congo.
The liberal establishment’s favourite paper also ran an opinion peace by an Ethiopian activist criticising Rice’s fulsome tribute to the late Meles Zenawi.
In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal recalled how Rice, an Africa specialist, had invested faith in young, progressive-seeming leaders such as Kagame, Zenawi and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, but stuck by them when they turned out to be not so progressive after all.
Other pieces recalled how in the Clinton administration she had reportedly asked what effect the Rwandan genocide might have on Democrats’ prospects in the 1994 mid-term elections.
The NYT reported that Rice had watered down a UN resolution condemning Kagame’s support for Congo’s M23 rebels, whose recent invasion of Goma, the major eastern city, provoked international condemnation. It emerged that Kagame had been a client of Intellibridge, a Washington consultancy Rice worked for during George W Bush’s presidency.
Senator John McCain, who threatened to block her nomination, and other Republicans would have had plenty of material to make her confirmation hearing very uncomfortable, besides Benghazi.
Rice is not the only Western politician to suffer from links to Kagame, of course. Andrew Mitchell’s last act as Britain’s international development minister was to r estore £16 million in aid to Rwanda, a decision which was rescinded by his successor after the Goma invasion.
With Rice no longer in the picture, the overwhelming favourite is Senator John Kerry. Not only would he a safe choice, but a good one.
As chairman of the senate foreign affairs committee, the Vietnam war veteran has vast relevant experience. He has the trust of foreign capitals in Europe and the Middle East, and acted as Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, cleaning up a mess left by the late Richard Holbrooke, like Rice a brilliant person whose uncompromising style didn’t work well in certain parts of the world. He also has great hair, which should be irrelevant but somehow isn’t.
If Kerry replaces Hillary Clinton, who is determined to leave her job, Obama would have a much better chance of securing the foreign policy legacy he surely craves – a two-state solution in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine Susan Rice picking her way through the minefield of that region’s diplomacy.
Obama was a friend of Rice and praised her work as UN ambassador. He wanted to reward her for supporting him early on in his White House bid. He is likely to do so by making her national security director, a job that doesn’t require senate confirmation.