The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

The Susan Rice Fiasco

November 30, 2012

I’m not sure the Obama administration could have handled this any worse.  We live in a highly politicized world and somehow the Obama administration is “shocked, shocked” that this issue is being hyped.  And while I’m sympathetic to the flurry of criticisms of FoxNews and others for hyping this, I’m also struck by how badly the administration has handled it all.

The core of Obama’s foreign policy has been to lighten America’s global military footprint and to redirect away from Bush’s flawed idea that we could “defeat” terrorism.   In other words, the gist of Obama’s foreign policy has been to  maintain pressure on groups like Al Qaeda and reduce their capabilities.  But, in the end, given America’s global posture, various types of terrorist attacks are probably going to happen.   The key is to maintain a steady approach and not over-react and overcommit — as Bush did in Iraq and elsewhere behind his “global war on terror.”

Overall, I think this is a solid, prudent, and reasonable approach.   However, this is generally where this administration gets into trouble.   One of the central flaws of the Obama administration has been is its tendency towards vacillating displays of arrogance, indifference, dismissiveness, and open disdain towards those that challenge what it concludes are its inherently “reasonable” positions.  While it seems clear that both President Obama and Secretary Clinton were deeply disturbed by the deaths of Ambassador Stevens and the others, the initial response also suggests that the administration did not see the attack as posing much more than the type of terrorist attack that is probably going to happen from time to time.   It was a pretty big deal, but not a really big deal.  If we’re looking for reasons why McCain and Graham are so angry about Benghazi, I think this is it.

My sense is that this is also why the vetting process on the talking points seems to have been so ambiguous — and almost casual.  By her own admission, Rice was more or less parroting the talking points given to her.  Neither she nor others in the administration appear to have thought enough about the matter to scrutinize them more closely before she made her television appearances because while the attacks were seen as tragic, they were just that — tragic.   If Rice and others in the administration had felt that these attacks signified a broader, deeper, more strategic event, I’m guessing she/they would have gone back to the sources and demanded clarification and more understanding.  In this sense, the story is as much about what Rice and the administration did not do and say as what they did.

I think this is where the story gets much of its traction.  The administration missed the significance of the symbolism of the death of Ambassador Stevens.  It was a much bigger deal to others than to the administration.  That the administration hasn’t acknowledged and responded to this, is part of what continues to drive the story.





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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.