Column: For Rice, deja vu all over again
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — This is the price of insularity.
The backlash poisoned her relationship with Republicans in Congress and dashed her chances of becoming secretary of state. President Obama instead named her national security adviser, which didn’t require Senate confirmation.
Now there is another crisis. Obama needs congressional support for a military strike on Syria, because a “no” vote could cripple his presidency and damage American credibility. So what do the big brains in the White House do? They put Susan Rice in front of TV cameras to read CIA talking points.
Yep, that’ll seal the deal.
And so Monday found Rice at the New America Foundation, delivering intelligence estimates such as “we do not assess that limited military strikes will unleash a spiral of unintended escalatory reactions” and “we assess” that Syria has used chemical weapons “on a small scale multiple times since March,” and “intelligence we’ve gathered reveals senior officials planning the attack.”
Rice, two months on the job, delivered her speech in an odd cadence, as though she had been instructed not to say more than a few words at a time. In her take-no-prisoners style, she literally dared lawmakers to vote against military action:
“Every adult American. Every member. Of Congress. Should watch those videos. For themselves. See that suffering. Look at the eyes. Of those men and women. Those babies. And dare to turn away. And forsake them.”
If that didn’t irk lawmakers enough, Rice will be on Capitol Hill to brief them today — a year to the day after the Benghazi attack.
As Obama staffed the White House for his second term, there was criticism that he was isolating himself by promoting loyal aides who lacked the independent standing to tell him when he was making a mistake. Now, regarding Syria, we see the consequences.
Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a strike while on a stroll with longtime aide Denis McDonough, his chief of staff. The decision blindsided not only congressional leaders but even Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — people who could have warned Obama that he was walking into a buzz saw on Capitol Hill. The White House clearly underestimated how obstinate Republicans would be, even on matters of national security, and how little good will Obama has among liberal Democrats.
Now that he’s in the jam, the president lacks somebody on his White House team with the stature to shift votes. Those who have heft, such as Kerry, had their argument undercut by the surprise decision: If the threat to national security is so dire, why didn’t Obama launch the strike without calling for a vote? That made the attack sound elective. And the contradiction left Kerry in a rhetorical muddle, alternately musing about the possibility of “boots on the ground” in Syria and describing the operation as “unbelievably small.”
Enter Rice, who last week informed NBC’s Brian Williams that “we have no expectation of losing the vote in Congress. We are quite confident.” That confidence must have remained Monday, for she suggested that there is broad approval at home and abroad. “The limited strikes,” she said, “have garnered support on both sides of the political aisle.” She further asserted that “we gained unequivocal public support for anticipated U.S. military action from partners in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.”
Rice made the most compelling argument for an attack, saying that “we cannot allow terrorists bent on destruction or a nuclear North Korea or an aspiring nuclear Iran to believe for one minute that we are shying away from our determination to back up our long-standing warnings.”
But she also made an emotional appeal, “as a parent, a mother,” saying concern for children should translate to support for military action. “As a parent, I cannot look at those pictures, those little children laying on the ground, their eyes glassy, their bodies twitching, and not think of my own two kids,” she said.
So does this mean that those on the other side of the issue care less about their children? Rice walked off the stage without fielding the questions called out to her. “She does not have time to answer,” the foundation’s president, Anne-Marie Slaughter, told the audience.
We assess that Rice also didn’t have the inclination.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.