President Obama had a rare "bring-it-on moment" when ABC News' Jonathan Karl asked him about threats by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham to block confirmation of Susan Rice as secretary of state.
"If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said at his East Room news conference last week, defending his U.N. ambassador from charges she misled the public about attacks on Americans in Libya.
"For them to go after the U.N. ambassador ... and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous. And, you know, we're after an election now."
It was reminiscent of his putdown of McCain in early 2010, when at a health care forum he reminded his former opponent: "The election's over."
Obama's over-the-top defense of Rice -- whom he has not yet nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton -- was surprising, particularly in contrast to the president's relative indifference in accepting the resignation of CIA chief David Petraeus, one of the most capable public servants. And it was disappointing, because McCain, even if wrong on the particulars, is right about Rice. She is ill-equipped to be the nation's top diplomat, for reasons that have little to do with Libya.
Even in a town that rewards sharp elbows and brusque personalities, Rice has managed to make an impressive array of enemies -- on Capitol Hill, in Foggy Bottom and abroad. Particularly in comparison to the other person often mentioned for the job, Sen. John Kerry, she can be a most undiplomatic diplomat, and there likely aren't enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her.
Back when she was an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, she appalled colleagues by flipping her middle finger at Richard Holbrooke during a meeting with senior staff at the State Department, according to witnesses. Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults.
Among those she has insulted is the woman she would replace at State. Rice was one of the first former Clinton administration officials to defect to Obama's primary campaign against Hillary. Rice condemned Clinton's Iraq and Iran positions, asking for an "explanation of how and why she got those critical judgments wrong."
Clinton got a measure of revenge in 2010 after she worked out a deal with the Russian foreign minister on a package of Iran sanctions to be adopted by the U.N. Security Council. The White House wanted Rice to make the announcement (part of a campaign to increase her profile that included high-visibility foreign trips and TV appearances), but a Clinton aide got Kerry to ask Clinton about the matter during an unrelated Senate hearing.
Rice's putdown of Clinton was tame compared to her portrayal of McCain during 2008, which no doubt contributes to McCain's hostility toward her today. She mocked McCain's trip to Iraq ("strolling around the market in a flak jacket"), called his policies "reckless" and said "his tendency is to shoot first and ask questions later. It's dangerous."
It was Rice's own shoot-first tendency that caused her to be benched as a spokesman for the Obama campaign for a time in 2008. She unnerved European allies when she denounced as "counterproductive" and "self-defeating" the U.N. policy that Iran suspend its nuclear program before talks can begin. She criticized President George W. Bush and McCain because they "insisted" on it. But as The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler pointed out at the time, European diplomats were rattled by such remarks, because the precondition was their idea.
Rice's pugilism provoked an attempt by the Russians to weigh in last week in opposition to Rice as secretary of state. The Russian business daily Kommersant quoted an anonymous Russian foreign ministry official saying Rice, who quarreled with Russia over Syria, is "too ambitious and aggressive," and her appointment would make it "more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington."
Compared to this, the flap over Libya is relatively minor -- but revealing. It's true that in her much-criticized TV performance she was reciting talking points given to her by the intelligence agencies. But that's the trouble. Rice stuck with her points even though they had been contradicted by the president of the Libyan national assembly, who, on CBS' "Face the Nation" just before Rice, said there was "no doubt" that the attack on Americans in Benghazi "was preplanned."
True, Rice was following orders from the White House, which she does well. But the nation's top diplomat needs to show more sensitivity and independence -- traits Clinton has demonstrated in abundance. Obama can do better at State than Susan Rice.
Email Dana Milbank of The Washington Post at firstname.lastname@example.org.