Like most people, I would prefer to see President Obama nominate Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for secretary of state (and if not Duncan, then Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood), but if this doesn't come to pass, it seems to me that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (the "embattled" U.N. ambassador, in journalese), stands a decent chance of being very good in the job. Rice wouldn't be the best nominee -- the best candidates seldom, if ever, get nominated (William J. Burns, the current deputy secretary of state, would do very well in the No. 1 job, as would Nicholas Burns, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs -- really, anyone named Burns would do).
We're all familiar with the reasons why Susan Rice would allegedly make a lousy of secretary of state: She's brittle, she's inexperienced, she lacks the stature to challenge President Obama, and she is no great foreign policy genius. (As Nicholas Lemann noted earlier this week, "The foreign-policy world extravagantly admires intellectual brilliance, but rarely produces it.") Rice's role in the Benghazi mess (that of the "Unfortunate Spokeswoman") doesn't bother me overly much. She should have been more careful about what she said when she said it, but she is very obviously being scapegoated by some Republicans, and this scapegoating makes me more sympathetic to her cause.
What is that cause? What are the qualities that would make her a credible secretary of state? Three come to mind immediately. (Not including the fact that she once gave Richard Holbrooke the finger, which suggests, if nothing else, moxie.)
The first is that she has gained tremendous, even unparalleled experience, at the United Nations. She has learned how to parry the Russians and the Chinese; she has figured out the snakepit ways of the international system; she has seen up-close the hypocrisy of totalitarian and anti-democratic states (states that still make up a good portion of the UN membership). At the UN, Rice has become an eloquent voice for human rights, and she has done an able job of arguing against the wildly disproportionate criticism leveled at Israel in the General Assembly and in putative UN human rights forums. She has been far from perfect in the job, but she has generally been solid.
The second reason: She has had some very public failures. A secretary of state nominee -- anyone in high office, really -- should have some experience with failure, and she has it, most notably on Rwanda, during her service as an Africa expert in the Clinton Administration. She realized soon after the genocide that her Administration was derelict and absent from the scene, and she has spoken movingly and with apparent sincerity about her own shortcomings.
The third reason is related to the second reason: For people who believe that America has a benevolent and positive role to play in the world, in confronting dictators, stopping genocide and highlighting human rights abuses, Rice should be their candidate. For isolationists, Rice at State would be a real challenge. She is inclined toward humanitarian intervention -- I believe she had these inclinations even before she saw the price of timidity and inaction in Rwanda -- and her active stance on the Libya intervention (and the obvious tension she feels about the so-far limited role the U.S. has played in Syria), suggests that she won't be afraid to recommend to President Obama greater involvement in the world's crisis zones. (One of the reasons John McCain's operatic opposition to Rice's potential nomination makes no sense to me is that he shares many of the same activist inclinations as Rice).
This is not an argument that Rice has the profile or potential of a Hillary Clinton-class secretary of state. But it is to argue that she would bring certain important qualities to the job, and that she is being treated very shabbily at the moment.