MoDo has extruded something called “Makeup Turned Breakup” in which she babbles about a Capitol Hill mystery: Was the diplomat not diplomatic enough? Or did the Republican senators already have their minds made up and agendas set? Well I never — Republicans with set agendas and closed minds? Who could have imagined that? The Moustache of Wisdom, in “My Secretary of State,” says he has a case for making Arne Duncan the secretary of state in President Obama’s second term. He says it actually makes sense when you think about it. Here’s MoDo:
Are the Republican senators unreasonable? Or is the secretary of state-manqué undiplomatic? Did the senators sandbag Susan Rice? Or did Rice further inflame a tense situation? Is it a case of shooting the messenger and playing politics? Or is national security dangerously infected with politics?
It seems as if it would have been simple enough for Rice to quickly admit that the administration talking points she used on the Sept. 16 Sunday shows about the slaughter in Benghazi were misleading. But she went silent. She has no wartime consigliere and, aside from the president’s angry postelection defense of Rice, the White House — perhaps relieved that she was taking the heat rather than the president — wasn’t running a strong damage control operation that clarified matters.
Still, on last Sunday’s talk shows, John McCain and Lindsey Graham softened their tone a bit. “She’s not the problem,” McCain said. “The problem is the president of the United States,” for failing to swiftly tell Americans what his intelligence agencies had confirmed: that Benghazi was a terrorist attack involving Al Qaeda affiliates.
When Rice asked to come to the Hill to meet with some of her Republican critics, it seemed détente was nigh. But somehow the hour-and-a-half powwow caused an escalation, with McCain, Graham and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire emerging to say they had more reservations than before. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who’s scheduled to meet with Rice on Wednesday, suggested that she would be better suited to run the Democratic National Committee than State. If Rice can’t soothe the egos of some cranky G.O.P. pols, how would she negotiate with China?
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the soft-spoken ranking member on the homeland security committee, hasn’t been part of this shrill debate. Though they had met only once or twice, Collins agreed to introduce Rice to the Foreign Relations Committee in 2009 when Rice was nominated as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Rice’s grandparents immigrated from Jamaica to Portland, Maine.
“I don’t bear any animus to her at all,” the senator said. “In fact, to the contrary.”
But she said she is “troubled” by Rice’s role. “If I wanted to be secretary of state,” Collins observed, “I would not go on television and perform what was essentially a political role.”
Collins drew up a list of questions to ask Rice at their one-on-one hourlong meeting slated for Wednesday. She wants Rice to explain how she could promote a story “with such certitude” about a spontaneous demonstration over the anti-Muslim video that was so at odds with the classified information to which the ambassador had access. (It was also at odds with common sense, given that there were Al Qaeda sympathizers among the rebel army members that overthrew Muammar el-Qaddafi with help from the U.S. — an intervention advocated by Rice — and Islamic extremist training camps in the Benghazi area.)
The F.B.I. interviewed survivors of the attack in Germany and, according to some senators, had done most of the interviews of those on site by Sept. 15, the day before Rice went on TV, and established that there was no protest. Collins wants to learn if the F.B.I. had failed to communicate that, or if they had communicated it and Rice went ahead anyway?
When Rice heard the president of the Libyan National Congress tell Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation,” right before her appearance, that 50 people had been arrested who were either foreign or affiliated with or sympathized with Al Qaeda, why did she push back with the video story? “Why wouldn’t she think what the Libyan president said mattered?” Collins wondered.
Why did Rice say on ABC News’s “This Week,” that “two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security”? Rice was referring to the two ex-Navy SEAL team members who were C.I.A. security officers working on a base about a mile away. “They weren’t there to protect Ambassador Stevens,” Collins said. “That wasn’t their job.”
Rice also said that “we had a substantial security presence with our personnel” — which was clearly not the case. Collins wants to know Rice’s basis for saying on ABC that the attacks were “a direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” And why did she say “a small number of people” came to the consulate to protest, when that phrase is not in her talking points? Collins is curious why Rice is not angrier, if, as she insists, she was repeating what she was told. “I’d be furious at the White House and F.B.I. and intelligence community for destroying my credibility,” the senator said.
Collins said that before she would support Rice for secretary of state, she needs to ascertain what was really going on. “Did they think admitting that it was an Al Qaeda attack would destroy the narrative of Libya being a big success story?” Collins asked. As one of the administration champions of intervening in Libya, Rice was surely rooting for that success story herself.
Now here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
President Obama is assembling his new national security team, with Senator John Kerry possibly heading for the Pentagon and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice the perceived front-runner to become secretary of state. Kerry is an excellent choice for defense. I don’t know Rice at all, so I have no opinion on her fitness for the job, but I think the contrived flap over her Libya comments certainly shouldn’t disqualify her. That said, my own nominee for secretary of state would be the current education secretary, Arne Duncan.
Yes, yes, I know. Duncan is not seeking the job and is not the least bit likely to be appointed. But I’m nominating him because I think this is an important time to ask the question of not just who should be secretary of state, but what should the secretary of state be in the 21st century?
Let’s start with the obvious. A big part of the job is negotiating. Well, anyone who has negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union, as Duncan did when he was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools before going to Washington, would find negotiating with the Russians and Chinese a day at the beach. A big part of being secretary of education (and secretary of state) is getting allies and adversaries to agree on things they normally wouldn’t — and making them think that it was all their idea. Trust me, if you can cut such deals with Randi Weingarten, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers, you can do them with Vladimir Putin and Bibi Netanyahu.
A big part of the job of secretary of state is also finding common ground between multiple constituencies: Congress, foreign countries, big business, the White House, the Pentagon and the diplomats. The same is true for a school superintendent, but the constituencies between which they have to forge common ground are so much more intimidating: They’re called “parents,” “teachers,” “students” and “school boards.”
There is a deeper point here: The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and, in this information age, improving educational outcomes for more young people is now the most important lever for increasing economic growth and narrowing income inequality. In other words, education is now the key to sustainable power. To have a secretary of state who is one of the world’s leading authorities on education, well, everyone would want to talk to him. For instance, it would be very helpful to have a secretary of state who can start a negotiating session with Hamas leaders (if we ever talk with them) by asking: “Do you know how far behind your kids are?” That might actually work better than: “Why don’t you recognize Israel?”
“The biggest issue in the world today is growth, and the world is divided into two groups — those who get it and those who don’t,” said Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert. “If you’re dealing with the Middle East, it might actually be helpful to have someone who can tell some of the parties why they are going in the wrong direction and how their problems are not what they think they are, nor are their solutions.”
Indeed, Islam is one of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, but it is not the answer to Arab development today. Math is the answer. Education is the answer. Getting the Middle East to focus on that would do more to further our interests and their prosperity than anything else. As we are seeing in Egypt, suddenly creating a mass democracy without improving mass education is highly unstable.
At the same time, as our foreign budget shrinks, more and more of it will have to be converted from traditional grants to “Races to the Top,” which Duncan’s Education Department pioneered in U.S. school reform. We will have to tell needy countries that whoever comes up with the best ideas for educating their young women and girls or incentivizing start-ups or strengthening their rule of law will get our scarce foreign aid dollars. That race is the future of foreign aid.
Finally, there’s a reason that since the end of the cold war our secretaries of state have racked up more miles than they’ve made history. Before 1995, the job involved ending or avoiding superpower conflicts and signing big arms control treaties. Those were the stuff of heroic diplomacy. Fortunately, today there are fewer big wars to end, and the big treaties now focus more on trade and the environment than nukes — and they’re very hard to achieve. Also, today’s secretary of state has to deal with so many more failed or failing states. Secretary Hillary Clinton practically had to forge the Syrian opposition groups into a coherent collective, as a necessary precursor to persuading them to do the right things. Today, to make history as a secretary of state, you have to make the countries to deal with first.
In short, we’re still indispensable, but the problems are much more intractable. Our allies are not what they used to be and neither are our enemies, who are less superpowers and more superempowered angry men and women. A lot of countries will need to go back to the blackboard, back to the basics of human capacity building, before they can partner with us on anything. So while we’re not likely to shift our secretary of education to secretary of state, let’s at least understand why it is not such a preposterous idea.