Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 December 2012

Susan Rice at State

This blog has made no secret of my first choice for Secretary of State in Obama’s second term. It’s Jon Huntsman, Jr., for his long experience, his fluency in Mandarin, his high intelligence, and the chance to spark much-needed GOP reform by appointing a key GOP moderate and giving him a national platform.

I prefer Huntsman because our relationship with China is our and the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Unlike Huntsman, neither Susan Rice nor John Kerry has special experience with China.

But I’m not the President. For whatever reason, the President Obama has never even suggested appointing Huntsman. Perhaps Huntsman and he didn’t work well together. Perhaps he doesn’t want to make an across-the-aisle appointment that would raise the GOP’s profile because he sees today’s GOP as irredeemable, requiring a decade or more in the political wilderness to reform itself. If so, I salute his political savvy, which has wrought “miracles” far more than once.

Whatever the reasons, the realistic choices at State are now John Kerry and Susan Rice. Between the two, Rice is the better choice.

Kerry is a good and honorable man. He was the first candidate for president for whom I ever campaigned. But what sparked my effort in 2004 was no particular enthusiasm for him personally. It was fear—subsequently well-justified—of what a second term of Dubya would do.

I hate to say it of a good man, but Kerry is a wimp. Apparently he helped the President win the last election. But a man who could (or would) not stand up for himself in a crucial election, with the fate of our nation at stake, is not the sort of diplomat we want at State.

As our right wing has trouble understanding, nuclear weapons have made war almost obsolete, at least between major powers. Our species has grown up a bit from our biblical “smiting” days. We are coming to realize that politics doesn’t stop at national borders. It’s global, continuous and vitally important.

Von Clausewitz was right when he called war politics by other means. But on a crowded and infinitely more civilized planet, “hot” war is far too blunt an instrument for modern international politics. As we have painfully discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, hot war has too many unintended consequences and too much “collateral damage.”

So diplomacy is the new war. It is safer, surer and far less bloody than “hot ”war. In my lifetime alone it has accomplished miracles.

Diplomacy ended the Cold War bloodlessly. It rebuilt Germany and Japan from the ashes of a war they started into the world’s third and fourth most productive economies. It gave birth to the State of Israel, ended the terrible and senseless conflict in Northern Ireland, and kept Pakistan and India from perpetrating the world’s first bilateral nuclear war. With a bit of help from brief military intervention, diplomacy stopped a genocide in Kosovo and a slaughter in Libya. It may yet stop an attempted genocide, now in progress, in Syria.

What happened recently in Benghazi, in my view, only confirms the modern primacy of diplomacy. In our new, multipolar world, diplomacy in dangerous areas can involve physical risk.

Ambassador Stevens and his three fellow victims were the first casualties of that new reality. They won’t be the last. But putting a few brave diplomats at risk, as in Benghazi, is far better than trying to transform a whole society by military conquest.

Fox and its idiot so-called pundits don’t understand these points and never will. But they are the new reality in our multipolar world, whose existence our own intelligence agencies just confirmed in their quadrennial joint report.

Diplomacy was once a niche in which to reward effete and ineffective politicians for loyal service. It is no more. It’s the new front line of international conflict. Its personnel are as important to our security and our future as appointments to our Joint Chiefs.

As between John Kerry and Susan Rice, there is no question who is smarter, tougher, and more flexible. There is no question who has better and clearer vision. Kerry was a lackluster candidate for president; he lost because he has none of that “vision thing.” (1 and 2) In contrast, Susan Rice could see justice clearly in Darfur, Libya and Syria. She spoke eloquently and fought tirelessly for it.

In the past, diplomats used airy circumlocutions and barely decipherable code. They were a bit like Alan Greenspan.

But that era is gone with the wind. Just as Bernanke’s bluntness and occasional misplaced metaphor (“fiscal cliff,” anyone?) is the new norm in economics, so Susan Rice’s style is the new norm in diplomacy.

I have no love or nostalgia for Ronald Reagan, whose Irish charm, utter ignorance of economics and right-wing lurch pushed us down our declining glide path. But his international policies, which I supported at the time, were effective.

When Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down that wall!” he was being blunt by diplomatic standards of the time. But his bluntness was neither rude nor offensive. It stuck a chord with listeners worldwide, and undoubtedly also with Gorbachev himself, who was and is a smart and good man.

That sort of inoffensive bluntness is the new diplomacy. You can’t expect to convince anyone, let alone move the heavy needle of global public opinion, if you speak in riddles.

Susan Rice has the gift. John Bolton didn’t and doesn’t. The rap against him was not that he was too blunt, but that he was (and is) too brash, impulsive, stupid and clumsy to be an effective diplomat.

Susan Rice doesn’t suffer from those disabilities. She has been instrumental in turning the boycott screws on Iran, which have roiled Iran’s internal politics and recently had Tehran merchants marching in the streets. Along with two other women—Secretary Clinton and Samantha power—she worked tirelessly to secure the UN “cover” for our intervention in Libya, which saved the Libyan people from slaughter and the world from another decade or so of madman rule.

Unlike his predecessor, our current President is not a unilateralist. Unless we are directly threatened, he is unlikely to intervene militarily, let alone start a war, without some sort of international consensus and support.

Our own intelligence agencies’ recent joint report confirmed the value of that approach. Alliances and partnerships are vital in the modern world. They help shape global public opinion, provide logistical and financial support, share the casualties of any military action, and provide a “reality check” against misguided adventurism.

So gathering allies and partners for any military intervention is job one in the new diplomacy. Rice has done a superb job at that.

Rice also has something else, which few so far have noted. She has rich, clear and fully articulate English. All our great secretaries of state did also, but Madeleine Albright did not.

Words are a diplomat’s weapons. So they have to be precise and well-calibrated. A diplomat has to be able to speak, off the cuff, in fully-formed sentences and coherent paragraphs.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger could do that superbly. Albright could not. Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton are somewhere in between. Susan Rice may not be as smart as Brzezinski or Kissinger, but she certainly comes close, and she has room to grow.

Susan Rice is the President’s choice. She’s good. She’s smart. She’s tough. She’s personally impressive. She’s relentless. Like any good diplomat, she doesn’t hog the spotlight and ham for credit on the international stage. She works tirelessly, mostly out of the news, fighting for international justice so that our troops won’t have to.

Rice has no bad marks against her. Her relentless and somewhat quixotic effort to stop the genocide in Darfur was partially successful, and only because Rice above others kept at it.

Rice’s so-called “gaffe” about Benghazi had absolutely no consequences and was quickly corrected. It’s another of Fox’ useless distractions from what really matters. Senators McCain, Graham and other Republicans ought to be ashamed for jumping on the bandwagon of this base demagoguery.

The bottom line is that Rice is superbly qualified by experience, brains and temperament. She has done nothing wrong and much right, often under high pressure and impossible deadlines. She is the President’s choice and should be confirmed.



  • At Thu Dec 13, 03:55:00 PM EST, Anonymous Jason said…

    I don't know that it's appropriate to call John Kerry a wimp. I think his poor defense against the swiftboaters has more to do with an ill-advised strategic decision to try to marginalize them by not dignifying their rumors with a response. Perhaps he had too much faith in the public to see that nonsense for what it was, and in the media to help bring the truth to light rather than just amplifying rumors and innuendo. Perhaps he thought engaging the swiftboaters would raise their stature.

    It's typical for politicians not to comment on tabloid bullshit. Half the times I buy groceries I see some headline about Obama having a secret lovechild with an alien from Neptune or something, and it's below the dignity of the office to even acknowledge that silliness. Kerry may have simply decided that the swiftboaters were in that class and deserved the same response.

    He was wrong, of course. I thought it at the time, and it's obvious in hindsight. But I don't think this strategic blunder necessarily makes him a wimp. (It may, however, be relevant to his qualifications for SecState because that job has similar strategic challenges.)

  • At Thu Dec 20, 06:58:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Jason,

    On reconsideration, I think you’re right.

    I thought at the time I wrote it that my characterization of Kerry was hasty and intemperate. I suppose I was just venting my continuing frustration that, with a little more vision and campaign strategy on Kerry’s part, Dubya never would have had a second term, and we somehow might have avoided the Crash.

    If you haven’t already seen it, a more recent post shows more optimism and gives Kerry more of his due. He showed courage in both his military service and protest, so “wimp” was not the right word.

    I think he’ll make an adequate Secretary of State, certainly no worse than Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice. His personal instincts, based on his Vietnam experience, seem to be right.

    Yet I worry about his ability to persuade, which is a big part of the job. He didn’t seem to excel there as candidate. Perhaps he’s better working one on one. The President certainly seems to think so, and I trust the President’s judgment.

    Thanks for dinging me for what I hope is a rare frolic into verbal intemperance.




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