Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and reportedly the favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton, asked to have her name withdrawn for consideration as the America's new secretary of state, the culmination of months of political attacks by Republican lawmakers, and intense scrutiny of her wealth, blunt diplomatic style, and relationship with African leaders.
Rice, 48, appeared destined this fall to serve as America's next top diplomat as President Barack Obama's second-term leader of Foggy Bottom. But her prospects plummeted after a trio of Republican senators -- John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- mounted a sustained attack on Rice.
They suggested that Rice may have willfully misled the public in a series of Sunday morning talk show interviews in which she characterized the September 11 attack on Benghazi, which led to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals, as likely a spontaneous reaction to the broadcast of an anti-Islamic web video.
The account later proved untrue, and evidence soon emerged pointing to a more targeted strike on the U.S. consulate by Libyan Islamists linked to al Qaeda. But the GOP charges against her never stuck, because Rice's account was largely consistent with internal talking notes she had received from the Central Intelligence Agency and because she had left open the possibility that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates may have been involved in the attacks.
In November, Obama rallied to her defense, telling reporters at a White House press conference that Rice had "done exemplary work" at the United Nations. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said with gusto. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi...to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
But McCain never relented as opposition in the Republican camp widened, drawing in Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), which made it clear that Rice was headed for a contentious Senate nomination process. Rice, meanwhile, faced a flood of more critical coverage of her tenure as a young U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the 1990s, and her role in shielding a close African ally, Paul Kagame, from scrutiny at the U.N. for his government's alleged role in backing a brutal mutiny in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I am highly honored to be considered by you for appointment as Secretary of State," Rice wrote in a letter to the president. "I am fully confident that I could serve our country ably and effectively in that role. However, if nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."
Rice said in the letter that she looks forward to continuing to serve the president and the country as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., though rumor has it that she might be going back to the White House or National Security Council.
President Obama issued a statement from the White House praising Rice as "an extraordinary capable, patriotic and passionate public servant" who has played an "indispensable role in advancing American interests" at the United Nations.
"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks," said the statement, "her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admiral commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first."
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President Barack Obama last night boasted about American leadership in toppling Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, reopening the debate about whether it was the United States or France and Britain that deserved credit for overthrowing Africa's longest ruling dictator.
"I and Americans took leadership in organizing an international coalition that made sure that we were able to -- without putting troops on the ground, at the cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq -- liberate a country that had been under the yoke of dictatorship for 40 years, got rid of a despot who had killed Americans," Obama said in the final presidential debate. "And as a consequence, despite this tragedy, you had tens of thousands of Libyans after the events in Benghazi marching and saying, ‘America's our friend.'"
"This is an example of -- of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Muammar Qaddafi didn't stay there," he said. "Muammar Qaddafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job."
The American claim to having led the effort has always irritated the French and British, who first mounted a diplomatic campaign at the U.N. Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qaddafi from using his aircraft to attack civilians. The United States initially refused to participate in that effort and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, repeatedly criticized the European initiative as feckless.
One top European diplomat denounced Washington's claims of leadership over the Libya campaign as "revisionist history." This morning, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen weighed in, arguing that Obama's claims of having led the coalition in Libya was among the most dishonest claims of the entire foreign policy debate.
President Obama "strongly suggested that he had America take the lead in Libya, organizing the air campaign that brought down Moammar Gaddafi. In fact, the French took the lead and the United States followed, which gave rise the phrase "leading from behind" -- an indictable offense, if you ask me. Obama also suggested that Gaddafi was some sort of American enemy when actually Washington had cut a deal with the Libyan strongman and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had met with him in 2008."
So what actually happened? I covered the diplomatic deliberations over the war against Libya. And while the United States initially provided little diplomatic support to their European allies' push for a no-fly zone ( and largely kept them in the dark about internal U.S. deliberations on the use of force), it ultimately took charge of the diplomatic effort at the U.N., and pursued a far more aggressive military approach than that advocated by the Europeans.
In March, 2011, pro-Qaddafi forces advanced on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, preparing to deliver a decisive blow that could have crushed the nascent armed resistance and led to the slaughter of large numbers of civilians.
Britain and France, with the backing of Lebanon, labored in solitude behind the scenes in New York to rally support for a resolution that would have imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, but received virtually no support from the United States.
"The Americans haven't yet defined their position on Libya," the frustrated then French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told a French parliamentary foreign affairs committee on March 15, 2011, two daysbefore the council acted. "Never mind that there's European impotence, but what about American power? What about Russian power? What's China's power over Libya?"
France's irritation stemmed from a perception that President Obama's national security team was hesitant to participate in an air operation to protect civilians. Even as the White House labored in internal discussions toward considering a military approach, Rice peppered her colleagues in the Security Council with so many questions and conditions -- we won't go in without the Arabs, for instance -- that some suspected she was trying to kill off the initiative.
Two days before the air campaign was ultimately authorized, France's U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, informed Rice that European governments would push for a vote on a resolution creating a no-fly zone, with or without America's support.
Rice, who lacked instructions from Washington to rally support for a military response, was not prepared to support her European allies, according to council diplomats. "You're not going to drag us into your shitty war," Rice snapped, according to an account by a senior council diplomat. Araud shot back: "We are not a subsidiary of the United States."
But the winds shifted after the Arab League threw its support behind the no-fly zone and the prospects of a mass killing in eastern Libya grew, placing the United States in the position of having to choose whether to back a military response, or step aside.
Following the conversation between Rice and Araud, the United States held a high-level teleconference with Obama's top national security team, including Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had just met with Arab leaders, agreed to intervene. Rice, who had a deep skepticism about the European approach, mounted a far more aggressive campaign for a resolution authorizing air strikes against Libyan forces to prevent the slaughter of civilians. Within two days, Rice had secured narrow 10-5 vote in favor of military force, underscoring the tenuous international support, but sufficient to launch the air war, which ultimately helped the rebels over throw Qaddafi.
A senior administration official said that the off-color encounter with Araud didn't "ring a bell" with Rice. But the official defended Rice's handling of the Libya file. The British and French were unaware that at the time she was questioning the wisdom of their approach -- which she called a "naked no-fly zone" -- that she was arguing for far tougher action in the White House, and that she had discretely advised her staff weeks earlier to draft a resolution authorizing sweeping military powers, according to the senior U.S. diplomat. (The contents of the draft have never been published.)
"There were some colleagues who were supportive of action who quite frankly thought we were trying to poison this, that we were trying to up the ante so far that we blew it up," Rice told me last year. "But we were dead serious and we believed this couldn't be half hearted. It had to be for real if it was worth doing."
Fair enough. But the notion that the United States led the U.N. effort in Libya continues to grate on the nerves of some European diplomats who felt the Americans left their closest allies in the dark until the final decision to act.
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President Barack Obama has placed multilateralism and the United Nations at the forefront of his foreign policy.
But he's just not that into it right now.
Earlier this year, Obama rebuffed a request by Ban Ki-moon to attend the international U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. And next week, Obama will give short shrift to world leaders converging on midtown Manhattan for the annual diplo-talk fest that is called the U.N. General Debate and what most were hoping would allow a face-to-face meeting with the American president. As it turns out, they'll barely get a glimpse of him.
In what is scheduled to be one of the briefest presidential appearances at a U.N. General Assembly debate in recent memory, Obama will sit for a brief meeting with Ban, deliver his speech before foreign leaders, then head cross-town to speak at former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative forum (a couple of hours after Governor Mitt Romney addresses the gathering), according to U.S. officials.
All those world leaders -- including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been eager to press Obama to take a more confrontational approach to Iran; Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, who infuriated Washington over his tepid first reaction to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo; and French President Francois Hollande, who had expected to meet with Obama -- will have to wait for another opportunity.
"Historically, Obama has never liked big multilateral summits (he hates meeting EU leaders for example) so U.N. is no fun for him," Richard Gowan, a U.N. specialist at NYU's Center for International Coalition, said in a Twitter interview on Wednesday with Turtle Bay. "Once the big speech is complete, Obama doesn't get any electoral benefits from gabbing with other leaders."
He may have an election just around the corner, but Obama's U.N. diplomatic drive-by comes as the United States is confronted with a series of American national security crises abroad, including a major political, military, and human rights calamity in Syria.
Last week, U.S. embassies around the Islamic world were the subject of violent demonstrations, including an armed assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama's reticence to engage with world leaders in New York reflects a president in full campaign mode, keen to avoid any new foreign policy commitments or controversies, particularly on Iran, where the president is seeking to deflect increasingly vocal demands by Netanyahu to take a more confrontational approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Gowan said he anticipated Obama's U.N. speech to target American voters, offering tough condemnation of Iran, sharp criticism of Russia and China for their failure to support sanctions against Syria, but few new commitments. "What he won't do is make any big promises for second about climate change or international law," said Gowan.
Edward Luck, a U.N. historian and dean of the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, said such a brief appearance by a president of the United States, the host government of the United Nations, was extremely rare and political unwise.
"Such a sudden exit would be unusual, to say the least. I'm not sure, but it occurs to me that Reagan may not have come to the opening of the GA every year," Luck said. I recall Bush being quite active on the bilaterals, which matter for domestic political purposes as well as for international ones."
"The General Debate is a great place to look presidential, something that should benefit an incumbent in a close race. Even if Obama decided not to take any bilaterals, so that they would not appear to be politicized by the election, it would not be good form to skip the [secretary general's] lunch. That could easily be seen as a snub, when both hope to need to work with each other over the next four years. "
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Marathon negotiations on a new Arms Trade Treaty enters its final stretch today with arms control experts relatively confident that a pact placing some restraints on weapons dealers that arm perpetrators of mass murder is in reach.
But don't expect it to stop the Syrian regime from arming itself.
The draft treaty includes loopholes that would allow governments to conclude existing arms trade agreements -- even with states engaged in horrific rights abuses.
It also provides relatively weak restrictions on the export of ammunition, and places no limits on governments that gift their proxies weapons. It also establishes no international watchdog to enforce the terms of the treaty.
"The historic treaty we need is within reach," Anna MacDonald of Oxfam said in a statement. But a "major problems is that arms transfers under defense agreements may not be affected by this treaty. We are concerned that this would not stop the latest arms sales from Russia to Syria."
Still, MacDonald and other arms control advocates have thrown their weight behind the treaty, saying it will for the first time establish a set of rules and regulations to govern the trade in arms. "We believe that while there are some loopholes in this text, and that it falls short in several ways, we still think is constitutes an important opportunity to reduce the impact of illicit trade and can save lives," Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told reporters.
The debate on the merits of the treaty are unfolding on the final day of the weeks-long session, which opened on July 2, aimed at securing agreement on the first-ever international treaty regulating the $60 billion-a-year international trade in arms. The treaty is aimed at curtailing the capacity of terrorists, armed groups, and genocidal regimes from obtaining weapons on the open market.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sought on Thursday to prod governments into clinching a deal, saying he was prepared to intervene in the negotiations if it would help. "The [U.N.] Secretary-General remains hopeful that the Conference will yield a robust and legally binding Arms Trade Treaty that will have a real impact on the lives of those millions of people suffering from the consequences of armed conflict, repression and armed violence," according to a statement from Ban's spokesman. "He wishes to remind delegations that we owe it to all the innocent civilians who have fallen victim to armed conflict and violence, to all the children deprived of a better future and to all those risking their lives to build peace and make this a better world."
U.S. gun-rights advocates oppose the treaty, claiming it is part of a stealth U.N. effort to infringe on gun ownership, a claim that is denied by diplomats and gun control advocates that support the new treaty.
In a sign of the political sensitivity the issue has in Washington, a group of 51 senators warned that they would oppose ratification of the treaty if it failed to protect the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms.
The treaty has been particularly unpopular in Republican circles, with the George W. Bush administration voting against a December 2006, resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that opened international negotiations on the first arms export treaty.
Following his election, President Barack Obama reversed course, supporting U.N. efforts to draft a treaty.
Supporters of the treaty say that it would have no impact on the rights of American gun owners -- that it would apply basic arms export standards to foreign countries, requiring states to establish national weapons control lists and to "assess" whether arms exports pose a threat to international peace and security. It would also prohibit the transfer of weapons to countries subject to U.N. arms embargoes.
The final round of talks, chaired by Roberto Garcia Moritan of Argentina, is scheduled to end later today.
Representatives from the U.N.'s 193 member states are examining a final draft that would bar states that sign the treaty from transfering most convention arms for "the purpose of facilitating the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes constituting grave breaches of the Geneva Convention."
Critics of that provision point out that few countries would ever accept the contention that they are selling weapons for the "purpose" of facilitating massive crimes, even if those weapons are ultimately used in a mass killing. For instance, Russia denies it is supplying weapons to Syria that have been used in the government crackdown on protesters. It says, rather, that it has carried out its obligation to fulfill longstanding military contracts with Syria, including its refurbishment of Syrian-owned helicopters.
The Security Council's five major powers -- the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia -- are responsible for nearly 90 percent of the world's trade in conventional weapons. So far, they have raised no serious public objections to the pact, according to experts.
But some experts say that a handful of countries, including Iran, Syria, and North Korea, have objected to the treaty, and may be prepared to block consensus. But even if the treaty is blocked, diplomats say that the supporters of the treaty could put the matter before the U.N. General Assembly for a separate vote. It would require a vote of two-thirds of the membership to endorse the treaty and open it for signature by states.
The latest draft of the treaty can be read here.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.