Susan Rice’s Revolving-Door Problem

Susan Rice’s possible promotion from U.S. Ambassador to the UN to Secretary of State continues to come under fire, now over her apparent conflicts of interest with African clients from her days as a private consultant, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It is difficult to remember the last time a not-yet-and-maybe-never-secretary-designate of some cabinet department got as much preemptive opposition as Susan Rice has been getting regarding the job of Secretary of State.

One of the lines of criticism, highlighted by Helene Cooper in the New York Times, concerns Rice’s coziness with some African strongmen and in particular with Rwandan president Paul Kagame. A specific twist regarding Kagame is that he was Rice’s client when she worked between government stints at Intellibridge, a consulting firm that also provided other former Clinton administration officials with out-of-government employment.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice meets with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on March 10, 2009. (White House photo)

It is hard for an outsider to judge whether Rice’s handling of African issues at the United Nations since she came back into government has represented a compromise of integrity and, if so, how U.S. diplomacy may have suffered. There does seem to be a pattern of Rice wanting to go easy on Kagame, notwithstanding his government very likely being the principal backer of rebels who are causing the latest round of havoc in eastern Congo.

But Rice’s supporters argue that a behind-the-scenes approach is more likely than public castigation of Kagame’s government to ameliorate the mess in the Great Lakes region of Africa. The sorts of attributes of Rice and her record that Jacob Heilbrunn has identified are probably more important in assessing whether she is qualified to be Secretary of State.

The past dealings with the Rwandans are a legitimate issue, however, and illustrate a problem with appointees that goes far beyond Rice. A distinctive feature of the U.S. system of government is the installation, with the advent of each new presidential administration, of a huge number of political appointees, thousands of them, going far below the level of cabinet secretaries. This system has several problems.

Although usually rationalized in terms of helping to ensure that the president’s policies and preferences are implemented, the system instead injects the personal preferences of many other people who shape policies that are below the president’s radar.

The system entails great disruption and persistent vacancies with each change of administration. The system means that the staffing of much of the government is determined in large part by who happened to play most successfully during the primary campaign season the game of hitching one’s wagon to a rising star.

Rice’s attachment to Kagame’s government illustrates yet another problem, which is the baggage that in-and-outers may acquire during periods that they are out of government. Different types of jobs entail different degrees and types of baggage problems.

What is most often thought of are financial interests left over from some lucrative private-sector employment, although problems related to that can be ameliorated through arrangements such as blind trusts. Probably harder to deal with is the legacy of the kind of relationship Rice had with Kagame.

Consulting firms whose shingles feature former senior officials who recently left office are selling influence and access at least as much as they are selling expert advice. Relationships that are ones of advocacy, trust, and taking action on behalf of the client’s interests are not relationships that can be turned on and off like a light switch.

The political systems of most other advanced democracies avoid most of these problems. The top national layer in those systems is peopled by a small political class that includes ministers who sit in cabinets and who, to do so, must subject themselves to a vote of the electorate.

Below them is a professional bureaucracy, part of whose defining characteristic (Japan is a conspicuous exception) is a commitment to execute faithfully the policies of whichever political masters are currently in office. The bureaucrats do not try to inject their own policies, and they do not acquire baggage from stints outside government.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Susan Rice’s Revolving-Door Problem

  1. rod carlon
    December 13, 2012 at 22:33

    Dr. Rice:
    As a 64 year old, gay, Vietnam veteran, who has lost past lovers to aids, cannot believe that you didn’t go for the gold. As a former supporter of John McCain, his behavior (since his loss to President O’Bama) has been pathetic. I understand the good of the country, however, the president should have forced you to proceed to the post….they are in the minority, they are losers and they now know it…..a tough pill to swallow….your dignity and support for the president is evident, but to let the losing party in our country call the shots in this case is disgraceful both to you and the president…Rod

  2. Bill Jones
    December 11, 2012 at 18:15
    • F. G. Sanford
      December 11, 2012 at 19:49

      Excellent article-I would particularly recommend Greenwald’s advice and check out the Glen Ford article, which has appeared on Black Agenda report and elsewhere. Rice is a shark in wolf’s clothing.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    December 11, 2012 at 17:54

    I just watched the CNN corporate shills singing Susan Rice’s praises under the direction of Maestro Wolfgang Blitzkrieg. I guess nobody in the fawning corporate media is willing to go after her war mongering. Despite the fact that she is philosophically aligned with the Neocons, McCain and Graham oppose her, but Lieberman loves her for obvious reasons. The only one telling a grain of truth was Scary Mary Matalin. As much as I like her husband, James Carville, even he thinks Hillary would make a great candidate for 2016. Progressives have welcomed the Neocon Trojan Horses aboard with open arms and open gates…Balkanization of the “Global South” appears to be a fait accompli.

  4. Bob
    December 11, 2012 at 15:15

    Sorry, but I don’t understand your objections to Rice. Are there other objections you can’t tell us? Other than not being a lawyer, which I’m not sure makes a person qualified for a foreign-policy position anyway, what makes her different from Hillary Clinton or Condoleeza Rice? You think these two “questioned authority” or had no conflicts of interest in places like Africa or elsewhere? Your biggest criticism is that she works hard to please her bosses, or that John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Ayotte were “confused” by their meeting? At least you and Heilbrunn agree the Benghazi affair is overblown political hackery. So unless you come up with more compelling reasons to be against her nomination, I won’t agree.

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