Susan Rice, Colin Powell, and the Legacy of Blame

Susan RiceTom Donilon, President Obama’s top national security adviser, is  stepping down, and  Susan Rice, the current United Nations Ambassador will likely replace Donilon in that role.

After the tragedy that killed four Americans at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, Rice was the voice of the Obama administration on all five Sunday morning talk shows.  Working from the approved script, Rice played down a possible terrorism aspect to the killings, and tied it to demonstrations in the area.

The death of the four Americans on September 11, 2013 was surely a foreign affairs failure and I will offer no excuses there. Americans, and particularly the families of those lost, have every right to know what and why it happened, just as Americans did on the tragedy that cost thousands of American lives on 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell at the hands of Islamic terrorists.

For months now, pundits and pols fanned the flames of a conspiracy, even after the respected Admiral Michael Mullen and equally lauded former U.N. Ambassador William Pickering chaired a committee which reported on the Benghazi situation.  Here are the highlights of the summary and discussion:

 1. The attacks in Benghazi were security-related, resulting in the deaths of four U.S. personnel after terrorists attacked two separate U.S. government facilities – the Special Mission compound (SMC) and the Annex.

2. Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.

3. Notwithstanding the proper implementation of security systems and procedures and remarkable heroism shown by American personnel, those systems themselves and the Libyan response fell short in the face of a series of attacks that began with the sudden penetration of the Special Mission compound by dozens of armed attackers. In short, Americans in Benghazi and their Tripoli colleagues did their best with what they had, which, in the end, was not enough to prevent the loss of lives of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. At the same time, U.S. security professionals prevented a further loss of life and helped ensure the safe evacuation of remaining American personnel in Benghazi 12 hours after the attacks began.

4. The Board found that intelligence provided no immediate, specific tactical warning of the September 11 attacks. Known gaps existed in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests, although some threats were known to exist.

Benghazi is still in the news, as former U.N. Ambassador Pickering testified in a closed-door setting about the investigation he chaired with Admiral Mullen in 2012.

Rice’s selection as National Security Adviser–a position that does not require Senate confirmation–will no doubt raise more questions about Benghazi.

As a journalist, I want to know the truth about what happened that led to the attack. As a citizen and a woman, I want to know why Rice is the hangdog for Benghazi when others in similar roles in past foreign policy failures pretty much got a pass? Let me drag out my liberal trope (getting a jump on commenters here) and talk about General Colin Powell.

In 2004, a year after the Iraq War began and Gen. Powell exited as Secretary of State, his approval rating was at 77%, higher than Hillary Clinton’s when she left the position. Gen. Powell  spoke before the United Nations, citing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a reason for war. Operation Iraqi Freedom resulted in the death of 4,409 American soldiers and 13 civilians, and 31,925 soldiers wounded. No one really knows how many Iraqis were killed.  And yet, Powell, upon leaving office, had the highest approval rating of any Secretary of State since 1948.

I have no particular allegiance to Susan Rice, and frankly I don’t know that much about her.  You can state the obvious here, she was–at the very least–doing what she was told and being a good soldier for the administration.   Yes, it was politics, and yes, it makes me sad and mad. And because of those politics, she withdrew her name from consideration earlier this year to become Secretary of State.

But Susan Rice’s political actions did not result in the death of those four Americans in Libya. Her marching in step, if indeed that is what happened, did not cause any one to lose a life, a mother to lose a son, a wife to lose a husband, a child to lose a father.

One might speculate the actions of Gen. Powell as Secretary of State before the United Nations contributed to the rush to war in Iraq.  Ultimately, we learned that there were no weapons of mass destruction, yet thousands of American died because Powell, and others in the George W. Bush administration, insisted that there were.

This is an enormous distinction with a difference.

George Packer, in his highly acclaimed new book “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America” offers one of the few honest appraisals of Powell.

“On February 5, 2003, the secretary went to the United Nations building on the East River…. He sat down at the Security Council table with audiotapes, photographs, drawings and a vial of white powder, and while the world watched on live TV, he spoke for seventy-five minutes about the threats posed by Saddam’s regime. He spoke with all the authority and self-control of a lifetime, and a great many Americans were convinced, for this was the man who showed that America still worked.

Then he stood and walked out with the erect bearing of a solder….

When the war began, the president (Bush the Younger) said that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ the secretary (Powell) said. ‘Every two hours, I wake up screaming.'”

As I said, there always is plenty of blame to go around when things go wrong, especially when it comes to America’s involvement in foreign countries. But as the next round of criticism and blame will surely be launched against Rice, let’s keep all of these things in mind and in perspective.

Amy McVay Abbott is an Indiana writer whose column “The Raven Lunatic” runs in a dozen newspapers and magazines. She is the author of  “The Luxury of Daydreams” (2011), a collection of essays available on all book sites. Her forthcoming book is called “A Piece of Her Mind” (2013). Follow her on Twitter at @ravenonhealth or visit her website at

Image via U.S. State Department

  • When Colin Powell gave that talk, I believed him. I believed that conducting a war would stop such atrocities. Later, when no WMDs were ever found, and when it appeared that Colin Powell must have known, did know, that he knew they did not exist and that he had lied to the people, then my faith in a good man was broken. This quotation about sleeping like a baby makes me see that his own faith in himself broke that day too. What a pity. George W. has a lot to answer for.

  • greenheron

    A thoughtful political post. Thank you. The present climate for political discussion is so rabid these days.

    I think people believed Colin Powell because he had so much cred…was a military man, and a no nonsense kind of guy, one you’d run to for protection if you were in trouble. A badass, unlike George W., and Cheney, who shot his hunting buddy in the face. Powell spent all the cred in that one decision though, and knows it. Regret is probably part of why he does not sleep so well anymore.

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