In discussions about UN Ambassador Susan Rice these days, the elephant in the room is not a Republican, it’s a conflict of interest. But you’d hardly know that from most of the media coverage, which is pretty much all Republicans all the time.
Susan Rice, who was never nominated to be Secretary of State, formally withdrew her name from consideration on December 13 in a friendly media appearance on NBC with Brian Williams, who did not question her outside the context of her statement: that she was withdrawing from the nomination she didn’t have in order to save the country from an ugly confirmation fight in the Senate.
Republican theatrics was the sole explanation for Rice’s withdrawal offered by literally dozens of perfectly competent reporters across the media spectrum, without reference to her financial holdings in the oil industry and increasing criticism of her record with African dictators and a hawkish willingness to take the country to war.
There’s little doubt that Republican Senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Kelly Ayotte (NH) were ready to lead their colleagues in a continuation of the public pillorying they had been putting Rice through since September, when Rice went on five Sunday morning TV shows to pitch the administration’s early version of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, when a terrorist attack coincided with an on-going CIA operation that was then still covert.
No wonder, under those awkward circumstances, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA head David Petreaus, White House terrorism czar John Brennan, and other more knowledgeable administration spokespersons were all suddenly “unavailable.” And no wonder, under those awkward circumstances, that Susan Rice was given intelligence community talking points that were less than models of clarity and precision.
If No One Mentions It, Does It Still Exist?
The dominant media narrative now is that Rice’s un-nomination was undone by Republican wrath, while few mention increased criticism of her record and fewer still note that she has yet to acknowledge, never mind cure a glaring potential conflict of interest she would have had as Secretary of State, and still has as UN Ambassador – namely her and her husband’s multi-million dollar holdings in Canadian firms that own or have interests in the Keystone XL pipeline that will, if built, bring toxic Canadian tar sands oil across America to the Gulf Coast to be shipped overseas.
Almost a year ago, President Obama postponed the decision to allow the pipeline to cross into the United States, but his administration has indicated that a decision, which rests officially with the Secretary of State, will be made in early 2013.
Since financial disclosure statements are allowed to be quite imprecise, we know only that Rice has reported a personal net worth of somewhere between $23. 5 and $43.5 million, of which about one third, or $8 million-plus, is invested in the oil industry. With a large personal stake in TransCanada, the corporation that owns and is building the pipeline, Susan Rice as secretary of state approving the pipeline would also enrich herself significantly. Against that, she would have to weigh arguments that approving the pipeline would have lethally catastrophic consequences for millions of people over the next century – or as NASA scientist James Hansen put it some months ago, approval of the Keystone pipeline will be “game over for the climate.”
Even less coverage has been given to the assessment that those same disclosure documents show that Rice’s holdings include companies doing business with Cuba and Iran, despite U.S. sanctions against both countries.
Even though the financial disclosure statements are public documents, Susan Rice’s wealth didn’t become an issue until it was first reported on November 28 by onearth.org. Even then most media – and most Republicans – ignored the issue. The New York Times covered it in a blog, where Dan Frosch noted that:
According to the United States Office of Government Ethics, federal law requires executive branch employees to be recused from matters “if it would have a direct and predictable effect on the employee’s own financial interests or on certain financial interests that are treated as the employee’s own.”
The ethics agency also advises that employees may be directed to divest financial investments if they pose a substantial conflict.
Does Accountability Begin with Acknowledgement?
So far, Susan Rice has publicly ignored the issue. She has not acknowledged that she has a conflict of interest, and she has not cured it. She has not divested herself of her investments in the Canadian oil industry, or the oil industry generally. She has not promised to recuse herself from decisions involving her conflict of interest.
Media attention to the question has been scant despite its relevance and significant implications, with preference given to the obvious entertainment values of the on-going Republican rhetorical pie-throwing contest, punctuated with frequent reference to President Obama’s forceful defense of Susan Rice in mid-November, when the only issue for Rice seemed to be Benghazi.
Two weeks later, Rice’s conflict of interest question came up at a White House briefing, when White House press secretary Jay Carney sidestepped a direct answer:
“I would commend Republican opposition researchers for the intellectual bandwidth that is required to read a financial disclosure form,” Carney said of the issue, “because this was all documented in a financial disclosure form.”
From there, most of the mainstream media let the unanswered question go unexplored. At the same time, a few started raising questions about Susan Rice’s actual record over the previous 20 years. On December 4, the New York Times ran a lengthy op-ed column by an experienced British journalist that raised doubts about Rice’s past judgments on several issues of both policy and character (later answered by one of Rice’s former colleagues at the Brookings Institute). Five days later, a Times editorial raised more troubling questions, suggesting that Rice has “a surprising and unsettling sympathy for Africa’s despots.”
On December 12, The Daily Beast ran a piece titled “Susan Rice’s Personality ‘Disorder’” that argued that Rice was “being subjected to an immutable law of the Washington power grid: in the rough and tumble of political combat, personality trumps policy.” The piece went on to group Rice with such unlovable failed nominees of the past as John Tower, Robert Bork, and John Bolton (although Bolton did get a recess appointment as UN Ambassador).
Shoes Showing No Sign of Stopping Dropping
During that same period in early December, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern published two anti-Rice pieces on Consortiumnews.com and appeared on DemocracyNOW! in a segment about Susan Rice with the title: “Beyond Benghazi: Partisan Rift over Susan Rice Ignores Hawkish Record on War, Africa and Keystone XL.”
Given Rice’s tenacious efforts to defend Rwanda in the United Nations in recent months, one of McGovern’s findings raised the stakes for conflict of interest questions:
It also turns out that Rwandan President Paul Kagame was a major client of Susan Rice at the “security analysis” firm Intellibridge, where Rice was a Managing Director from 2001 to 2002. Intellibridge is noted for its jobs program for former Clinton administration officials, providing them with out-of-government employment. But this kind of work can also create a clear conflict-of-interest over the longer term. (Rice moved on to the Brookings Institution for the rest of Bush’s term.)
The same day this story appeared, Susan Rice withdrew from consideration for Secretary of State. And despite more potent explanations, most of the media blamed Republicans. Even an otherwise very smart piece in The New Yorker said nothing about conflict of interest.
In the early coverage, apparently only The Guardian’s Michael Cohen touched all the currently known factual elements of the story, along with an overview that this was all just a President being practical: “this is completely typical Obama – ruthless, pragmatic, cold-blooded” —
Put all of this together and it raised legitimate questions about Rice’s suitability for the job. None of this is to say that – had Obama fought for her – she wouldn’t have won approval. It’s quite possible she would have gotten through the Senate hearing, but at what cost – both to herself and to the Obama administration?
Instead of waging that fight, Obama cut his losses.
Baseless and Incoherent Republican Attacks
In retrospect, Susan Rice was mainly a media-nominated candidate for Secretary of State, a figment of the conventional wisdom who got caught up in some unexpected realities. But last April, New York magazine’s John Heilemann had an outlook that was considerably rosier:
Whatever ultimately transpires with Iran and Syria, Rice’s U.N. tenure is already seen in the administration—and particularly by the guy behind the big desk in the Oval Office—as having been a success. So much so, in fact, that, along with[Thomas]Donilon and John Kerry, she is considered the likeliest successor to Clinton should Obama win reelection.
In almost every respect, the two women could hardly be more different. But in the past three years Rice has endured at least one distinctly Clintonesque experience: being subject to attacks from Republicans so baseless and incoherent they would have made a lesser woman’s head explode. It’s hard to imagine that background won’t come in handy in a second Obama term.
The illustration for this story showed Susan Rice with the whole world balanced on her nose.