Susan Rice: How to make enemies and fail to influence people

Susan RicePhoto by US Dept. of State

Susan Rice
Photo by US Dept. of State

A few months ago, Susan Rice, current US ambassador to the UN, seemed to have a clear shot at replacing Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. But last week, she withdrew her nomination for the job last week after it became painfully obvious that she would struggle to get approved by Congress.

The move was fairly inevitable – particularly given the profile of her Congressional enemies. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, two members of the triumvirate of defence policy movers and shakers known as the “new three amigos”, led a campaign to block her nomination, alleging she had “mislead” the American public over the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in September.

Precipitous PR

The “misleading” comments related to whether the attack on the Benghazi consulate was an entirely spontaneous event, or if a terrorist group had conceived a premeditated plan to attack and whipped up the riots to achieve it.

Rice’s initial assessment – made less than a week after the attack – put her firmly within the former camp. Her stance was seriously at odds with, among others, President Obama.

She also admitted that her statement was based on incomplete information and that she would need to wait for an FBI investigation to be completed before giving a full assessment.

Which, incidentally, is what she should have done to begin with. Given the complexity of the issue and the fluctuating nature of the story, it would have been prudent to admit that she didn’t have all the facts at the time, and that she’d have to wait for a fuller investigation.

Instead, a premature statement – a real PR bane – knocked her off track.

The ghost of elections past

It didn’t help that Rice had already garnered a very powerful enemy through her ill-advised statements.

Four years ago, at the height of the election that would project Barack Obama to the White House, Rice made a few unguarded comments about the future de facto leader of the ‘three amigos’, Senator McCain.

Heading up the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, Rice broke with the “no drama Obama” strategy and engaged in some negative campaigning against McCain, then the Republican Presidential nominee. Gallingly for McCain, she called his foreign policy “reckless” and labelling him as someone who “shot from the hip”.

Then came they ultimate insult: referring to an Obama visit to the Middle East during campaign season, Rice said: “I don’t think (Obama will) be strolling around the market in a flak jacket.”

The comment mattered because of a visit McCain had made to Iraq a year before, when he had been photographed wearing body armour at what appeared to be a perfectly safe marketplace in Baghdad. The insinuation in Rice’s comment was that McCain was a time-waster with a somewhat inflated sense of personal security.

Yes, this is the same John McCain who was captured and tortured for over five years by Vietcong forces while serving as a naval pilot. Publicly calling Presidential candidates ‘reckless’ may simply be everyday political jostling, but Vietnam veterans tend to remember when you call them yellow bellies.

Especially when they come to vote on your Cabinet appointment.

Learning from Rice

In theory, neither of these events should have been fatal to someone who could so easily have become America’s top diplomat. But Rice’s uphill struggle to secure the nomination illustrates two great truths of maintaining a strong reputation: firstly, that making enemies in the short-term can have disastrous long-term repercussions; secondly, that a statement made without full access to the facts can be all but impossible to come back from.

Posted by Alistair Walker @ IBA

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