Susan Rice's cowardly critics

Even some liberal pundits are providing ammunition for John McCain -- with anonymous sources, of course

Published November 20, 2012 7:39PM (EST)

Susan Rice      (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Susan Rice (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice isn't just facing down right-wing GOP attacks these days, she's taking incoming fire from pundits widely perceived as liberal. Maureen Dowd went all in on Rice in a nasty column Sunday, while the Washington Post's Dana Milbank termed Rice "ill-equipped to be the nation’s top diplomat for reasons that have little to do with Libya."

Dowd paints Rice as looking to close an alleged "stature gap" with her Benghazi Sunday show statements, quoting a colleague blaming her troubles on being "focused on the performance, not the content." Milbank says she's made "an impressive array of enemies — on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom and abroad." Both Milbank and Dowd seem to rely entirely on the anonymous testimony of such enemies; there isn't a single named source in either piece.

I wasn't going to write about either column until I heard Milbank on Brian Lehrer's WNYC show today, promoting his piece.  Before Milbank's segment, Lehrer asked his prior guest, New York Times correspondent David Sanger, about Milbank's claim that Rice wasn't much of a diplomat, and Sanger pointed to her role in negotiating tough sanctions on Iran supported by both China and Russia as evidence of her skills.

When he had the floor, after Sanger departed, Milbank dismissed Sanger's Rice defense as insincere. "You're asking him on the record, on the radio -- what else is he going to say? That's exactly the same answer I'd give in his position." Off the record, he insisted, is the way people unload on Rice.  Stunningly, Milbank was implying Sanger would do the same thing, given the chance. I hope Sanger was listening.

I realized that the columns by Dowd and particularly Milbank reminded me of Jeffrey Rosen's hit piece on Supreme Court Justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor back in May 2009, a similarly anonymously sourced mélange of complaints about Sotomayor, whom Rosen called “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.”

Milbank didn't quite call Rice a dumb bully. "Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults," he merely confides.

He quotes a Russian newspaper quoting a Russian foreign affairs official who called her “too ambitious and aggressive,” and said her appointment would make it “more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.” (Ooooh, imagine if Obama snubbed Rice because of that: He'd be taking his marching orders from Moscow!) Milbank also shares a fun story about Rice flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke during a senior State Department staff meeting to the shock of her colleagues. Unfortunately, Holbrooke, that renowned figure of restraint and self-effacement, is no longer with us to say what he thought of Rice's alleged gesture. It's possible he admired it.

Secretary of state is a diplomatic role, but it doesn't require a doormat. It's true, Rice is no fragile flower. She's only a professional acquaintance, someone I've met just three or four times, but one of those times was at a week-long working conference on women and children, where she was smart, kind, funny, tough, opinionated and diplomatic. That doesn't mean she should be secretary of state; it just means it wouldn't be hard to write a piece refuting Rice's anonymous critics – had Dowd or Milbank looked for them.

I know, they're columnists, they don't have to – but it's sad they're carrying water for Rice's cowardly rivals and doubters. No doubt Republicans are enjoying having so-called liberals with which to bolster their unfair, sometimes unhinged attacks on Rice – now with the imprimatur "Even those liberals at the New York Times and Washington Post agree." Righties used Jeffrey Rosen's Sotomayor slam the same way, adding "the liberal New Republic" to her list of detractors.

How relevant is it that both Rice and Sotomayor, two women of color, both wound up derided as bullies who aren't qualified? Hard not to notice; I'll let the reader judge what it means.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dana Milbank Maureen Dowd Susan Rice