On Thursday, President Obama took the unusual step of issuing a statement saying Susan Rice, the embattled US ambassador to the UN, had withdrawn herself from consideration to be secretary of state.
This was highly odd conduct for a White House because Rice was never nominated. In instances like this, presidents usually just nominate someone else and decline to discuss discarded possibilities for appointments.
This tells us that the White House remains deeply worried about the Libya scandal.
That Rice deliberately used her position to mislead the American people is no longer disputed by serious journalists. She went on every major Sunday news show after the 9/11 murder of US ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and incorrectly attributed the cause to an obscure video and supposedly spontaneous protests.
In fact, as Rice almost certainly knew from her intelligence briefings, the Libyan government, and even unclassified emails that the killing was a deliberate attack by an Islamist group.
Rice presumably did this to advance the president’s reelection campaign. A successful terrorist attack did not fit Obama’s contention that “the tide of war is receding” in part because “al Qaeda is on its heels.” Presumably other administration officials, like Secretary of State Clinton or Pentagon boss Panetta, declined to do the dirty work out of wise concern for their reputations.
That left Rice, the politico with a history of misleading the American public on national security matters for electoral reasons. As an NSC staffer dealing with Africa in the Clinton administration, Rice in 1994 reportedly urged against calling mass-killing in Rwanda the “genocide” it so obviously was. In a call with other national security officials, Rice specifically cited looming congressional elections as a reason to pull punches, especially since the administration was doing nothing.
Despite her role in the Libya cover-up, Rice likely would have been confirmed as secretary of state. Moderate Democrats are long gone from Washington; the partisan liberals who remain never break party lines on matters like this. Moreover, the country club Republicans who run the GOP caucus in the Senate were in no mood fight. The last thing they wanted was a confirmation hearing that inevitably would be construed by the media as unfair treatment of a black woman, even a demonstrably mendacious one.
So why did Obama blink? The reason can only be fear. Next week, Hillary Clinton is supposed to testify before Congress about Libya. There are some indications Clinton may now back out, or resort to insisting on a closed session hidden from the public. Whatever the result, President Obama clearly does not want to give Congress any more high-profile chances to ask someone under oath what happened in the hours and days after Stevens was killed. Rice was at ground zero of the real scandal: not in Benghazi, where the attack occurred; but in Washington, where the cover-up was planned and executed.
Furthermore, Obama probably thought that sacrificing Rice, who still keeps her job as UN ambassador, would assuage some congressional critics and distract from a pending report on what happened in Benghazi. Most importantly, it eliminates the troubling possibility of a Rice confirmation hearing. That likely still would have led to a confirmation victory for Obama—but a pyrrhic one given the ability of most Americans to sniff out a liar.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).