What to make of UN Ambassador Susan Rice's withdrawal from consideration on Thursday afternoon to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?
Rice's image has suffered greatly since the election, and not just because of her notorious appearances on five network Sunday TV chat shows five days after the Benghazi disaster, in which she said that the assaults on U.S. facilities in the Libyan city and the murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on the anniversary of 9/11 were the result of a protest over an anti-Islamic video gone sour.
Her candidacy has clearly been waning.
In addition to that controversy, there were controversies over her big investments in Canadian petroleum companies that helped persuade our neighbor to the north to opt of out greenhouse gas reductions (including the Keystone XL pipeline, the disposition of which the State Department is handling), the handling of '90s jihadist attacks on embassies while she was assistant secretary for African affairs, and her support for African dictators.
None of that helped her, obviously, and it all helped dissipate her core backing on the left.
Still, it was Benghazi that was the key.
The story she peddled on the chat shows was supported by intelligence community talking points, but we know now that those talking points were somehow altered as they worked their way through the system. There are now at least four versions of what agency was responsible. But even if the talking points hadn't been changed, and even if Rice had not had access to classified intelligence, which quite simply gave the lie to those talking points, the reports of the Libyan government, widespread news reports, and plain old common sense argued that she not go forth with the spin she employed.
My old mentor Regis McKenna, the Silicon Valley PR and marketing guru, always said that reality makes for the best spin. The further the spin gets from reality, the worse it is in the moment. And it will get worse still as time goes on.
The underlying imperative was to suggest, in the midst of Barack Obama's re-election campaign, that Al Qaeda was defeated -- if so, why are we still carrying out so many drone strikes and special ops raids around the world? -- but that was not especially intelligent.
(Here is the reality on terrorism: The core group of al Qaeda has been decimated and largely defeated. But others have sprung up to take up the banner, and one of the dangers of our aggressive policy is that, beyond a certain point, all the drone strikes and night raids create new jihadists and new problems.)
"Despite what we saw in that horrific incident where some mob was hijacked ultimately by a handful of extremists," Rice, in full spin mode, opined.
"There's no question, as we've seen in the past with things like 'The Satanic Verses,' with the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad, there have been such things that have sparked outrage and anger and this has been the proximate cause of what we've seen," Rice averred.
But of course there was no mob of protesters, hijacked or otherwise, as Mohammed Magarief, the president of Libya, not to mention U.S. video of the event, made clear. There was only a terrorist attack. Which continued later that night, on yet another U.S. compound in Benghazi.
Rice's performance not only violated the rule of reality-based spin, it made a mockery of it. What she was saying was simply preposterous for anyone with half a brain who was paying attention.
That would have been bad enough for a political operative. But it was disastrous for someone who was angling to be secretary of state.
It was also very bad news for the Obama Administration. Because it guaranteed that the most obviously egregious element of the Benghazi disaster -- the gross mischaracterization of the attack itself -- would be center stage throughout Rice's nascent candidacy for the nation's top diplomatic post.
Obama might, I emphasize might, have gained her confirmation in the end, after a very tough fight. But it would not have been worth it, for the effort would have shined a very harsh light on Benghazi, a disaster which appears to contain a number of very bad judgments. All of which constitute a separate matter from the rabid performance of Fox News and others on the far right, who posit preposterous conspiracies.
Now that Rice has stepped aside -- or, perhaps more accurately, been moved aside by the president or his operatives -- it may be possible to get to the bottom of the Benghazi disaster in a more measured fashion. Mistakes are inevitable in government and politics, as in life. The question is how to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. To do that, we have to understand what happened. And it is increasingly evident that CIA, which had a very big presence in Benghazi, was at the center of what went down -- and of what was tragically not perceived in advance -- even more so than State.
So long as Rice, insistent that she had not erred, was in center stage of the issue, with the most prestigious post in the Cabinet at stake, there was no chance that the inquiry would take place in a sober-minded fashion. The sheer hyper-partisanship of the nation's politics and much of its media made that clear. Her past performance, her defiant manner, and her enemies' fixation on her made that impossible.
It's unfortunate that Rice did not find a way to acknowledge the obvious -- that she had spun up an unsustainable stance -- and move forward. She's clearly a very talented person, if perhaps a bit stuck in political operative mode. Making mistakes, which everyone does, is often the best way to learn. But only if we acknowledge the errors.
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