Questions About Libya, Syria Could Shake Up Anticipated Cabinet Hearings

By Patrick Goodenough | November 14, 2012 | 4:35am EST

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry, Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listen to President Obama deliver a speech on Mideast policy at the State Department on May 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

(Update: President Obama at a press conference Wednesday said he had yet to make a decision on the next secretary of state, but vehemently defended Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, saying it was outrageous to “besmirch her reputation” over the Benghazi affair.)

( – President Obama reportedly may nominate Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to top posts in a second-term cabinet, but getting the nominations through the Senate is expected to be an uphill battle.

“I think Susan Rice would have an incredibly difficult time getting through the Senate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “I would not vote for her unless there’s a tremendous opening up of information explaining herself [on Benghazi] in a way she has not yet done.”

Kerry and Rice lead a short list of anticipated candidates to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is stepping down, and press reports Tuesday also raised the possibility of Kerry as defense secretary.

If either is named secretary of state, Libya and Syria will be among the difficult issues likely to feature in nomination hearings.

On Tuesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs, began classified briefings on the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

Rice stoked controversy when she told a series of Sunday talk shows on September 16 that the attack five days earlier – according to the best information available at the time – had been a “spontaneous reaction” to an online video clip denigrating Mohammed.

Since then, she and other administration officials repeatedly have defended her stance, pointing to her qualification about the best information then available.

Still unanswered, however, is why Rice went on TV to talk about the incident in the first place, just two days after the State Department told reporters it would answer no more questions on the Benghazi attack “until the Justice Department is ready to talk about the investigation.”

That she did so stoked Republican suspicions that the administration was trying to spin the events for political ends in the closing weeks of the election campaign.

“The president has a lot of leeway with me and others when it comes to making appointments, but I’m not going to promote somebody who I think has misled the country or is either incompetent,” Graham said on Sunday. “That’s my view of Susan Rice.”

Should a Rice nomination come up before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee she will face hard questions from Republicans including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) – in line to succeed departing Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) as ranking member – who has taken a lead in questioning the State Department on the Libya issue.

Other Republicans on the committee who have been critical of the administration’s handling of Benghazi include Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim DeMint of South Carolina.

Rice, who served in the second Clinton administration, advised then-Senator Obama on foreign policy during his 2008 presidential campaign, and after his victory he nominated her as America’s 27th permanent representative to the U.N.

Her tenure in New York has drawn praise from organizations promoting engagement with the world body, Democratic lawmakers – Kerry last September described her as “an enormously capable person who has represented us at the United Nations with strength and character” – and groups advocating the promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in foreign policy.

Rice has also faced criticism from some close observers of the U.N., including Anne Bayefsky, senior editor of the Hudson Institute’s Eye on the U.N. project, and Richard Grenell, who served as spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. during the George W. Bush administration, who said she provided weak leadership on Syria and Iran in particular.

Asked in New York Monday about prospects for a cabinet nomination, Rice replied, “I love my job here at the United Nations.”

“And I look forward to continuing to serve for as long as President Obama would like me to,” she added.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday fended off cabinet-related questions.

“I can tell you that the president has not made decisions on personnel matters, and you will not hear me discuss them until the president has made those decisions and has announced them,” he told a briefing.

Asked specifically about Rice and Kerry, Carney said Obama “believes that Ambassador Rice has done an excellent job and is grateful for her service” and was “certainly” happy with the job Kerry has done as committee chairman.

‘President Assad has been very generous with me’

Kerry has long been regarded as a strong prospect to succeed Clinton at State, and is viewed in the foreign policy community as a strong candidate.

When Foreign Policy magazine last week asked seven “top thinkers” for their picks for a second-term Obama cabinet, three of the seven named Kerry for secretary of state, while one favored Rice for the post.

If Kerry is nominated, one issue certain to arise in a Senate hearing relates to his leading role in pushing engagement with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Kerry has met with Assad at least six times, most recently in November 2010 – four months before the eruption of protests that turned into the ongoing civil war – and he strongly promoted Obama’s decision to send an ambassador to Damascus for the first time in five years.

Long before the March 2011 outbreak of violence, Assad’s regime had been shunned by Washington for abuses at home, support for Iran, political and security interference in Lebanon, and sponsorship of terrorist groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestinian factions.

But when Kerry gave a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 16 last year, discussing U.S. policy in the light of “the new Arab awakening,” he did not mention Syria once. (He did refer to the situation in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Lebanon.)

Asked about Syria during a question-and-answer session afterwards, Kerry was upbeat.

“I have been a believer for some period of time that we could make progress in that relationship,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to work for it and push it.”

“President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had,” Kerry continued. “And when I last went to – the last several trips to Syria – I asked President Assad to do certain things to build the relationship with the United States and sort of show the good faith that would help us to move the process forward.”

Kerry cited requests about the purchase of land for the embassy in Damascus, the opening of an American cultural center, non-interference in Lebanon’s election and the improvement of ties with Iraq, and said Assad had acceded to every one.

“So my judgment is that Syria will move,” Kerry concluded. “Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

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