What’s behind the GOP’s war on Susan Rice?

Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. speaks on "Face the Nation" Sept. 16, 2012.
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. speaks on "Face the Nation" Sept. 16, 2012.
Chris Usher/AP Photo/CBS News

Since President Obama was re-elected last week, Republicans have at least hinted at a renewed willingness to work with him on issues ranging from immigration to taxes. But on at least one unexpected subject, the GOP’s all-out opposition to the president endures: Susan Rice.

Senate Republicans, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have been unusually blunt in saying they won’t confirm Rice, the current U.S. ambassador to the U.N., if she’s nominated to serve as Secretary of State, as Obama reportedly intends. “I will do everything in my power to block her from becoming Secretary of State,” McCain declared Wednesday.

Though Rice has served on the National Security Council, as a special adviser to President Clinton, as a State Department official, and as a foreign-policy adviser to at least three presidential campaigns, McCain recently called her “unqualified.” Graham said she’s “disconnected to reality,” and doesn’t “deserve” promotion. In an op-ed on FoxNews.com, Richard Grenell, a Republican foreign-policy hand who served briefly as an adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, slammed Rice’s “miserable” record at the U.N.

The pile-on has drawn a brush-back from Obama. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” he declared Wednesday.

So what’s behind the vehement anti-Rice campaign?

Of course, for the GOP, the attacks serve as a way to continue to embarrass the Obama administration over its response to the Benghazi attacks. It was Rice who at first blamed the attacks on an anti-Muslim film—an explanation that now appears incomplete.

Still, it isn’t all about Benghazi. For one thing, Rice makes an easy target. “Unlike Secretary Clinton, she doesn’t have a huge national following, and unlike Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta, she doesn’t have a huge network of contacts on Capitol Hill,” suggests Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network and a former State Department official in the Clinton administration. In other words, Rice may simply be low-hanging Obama administration fruit for the opposing party.

But the campaign against Rice also is allowing Republicans to continue making the case—as they’ve done almost since Obama took office—that the administration avoids taking a hard line with our adversaries and doesn’t do enough to support our friends. Grenell wrote that Rice “ignored Syria’s growing problems for months,” and “skipped sessions when Israel needed defending.” On Iran, he charged, Rice has been able to pass just one resolution, compared to the Bush administration’s five.

Rice’s defenders say this portrait of a pushover is out of line with reality.  They note that she was among the administration officials to push Obama to intervene in Libya, and has had some heated exchanges with the Russian ambassador. One U.N. Security Council ambassador reportedly called her “the bulldozer” and “the headmistress,” and another terms her “bossy.”

As for not passing enough Iran resolutions: “It’s strange that conservatives always say that the UN is feckless, but want more condemnations of Iran from the organization, which have little effect,” said John Norris, a Center for American Progress director who has advised the UN.

Some observers even suggest that Rice’s race and gender may be a subtle factor in the opposition. Grenell wrote that when President Obama defended Rice this week, he “looked like a big brother defending his little sister on the playground.” And it’s hard to imagine a white man with a similarly lengthy foreign policy resume being described as “unqualified.”

“I don’t think in this day and age a lot of people wake up saying they want to go after a black woman, but there is absolutely a subconscious role that race and gender play,” said Hurlburt. As with Obama, some Republicans still see some people occupying high government positions as ‘less legitimate’ than others, because of their color and sex, she added.

What's behind the GOP's war on Susan Rice?