In early spring 2009, a bit more than a month into President Barack Obama’s term, Rep. Frank Wolf, a hawkish Virginia Republican, decided to put a stop to one of Obama’s first executive orders, closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“That is a non-starter and isn’t open to discussion,” Wolf said, introducing a bill that would have barred the transfer of the terror suspects to Virginia.
Close watchers of Washington’s national security politics waited to see what Obama would do. A relatively minor Capitol figure had taken a hard shot at the president: Would the White House come back at him, or would it accommodate and backpedal? Obama’s silence was, in the longstanding view of some inside and outside the administration, the first in a series of retreats that would mark the first-term national security policy, which left Guantanamo Bay open and terror suspects outside the federal court system.
“Susan Rice is essentially a repeat of Gitmo in 2009,” a former Obama administration official emailed moments after Susan Rice withdrew her name for secretary of state Thursday afternoon. “You have to give up on her because the politics are so bad that the White House thinks it can’t win. But the politics are so bad because they spent too long not fighting for it and instead just watching things get worse. Self-fulfilling.”
And torpedoing Rice is not, of course, the only — or even the top — item on the agenda of Republican hawks led by Senator John McCain. Obama faces pressure to intervene militarily in Iran; to get more heavily involved in Syria; to confront Egypt’s new leadership; and to, in general, continue to keep a distance from the more liberal foreign policy he articulated for much of his career.
Susan Rice’s appeal to Obama had always been something of a Washington mystery. Aside from the fact that they’re both black, they have very little in common. He’s a laid-back Hawaiian and an outsider at his roots, she’s an intense Washington player whose career has always been on a fast, straight track. And yet Obama evidently connects with her.
“Rice was not just another adviser; aides of both have told me Obama considered her someone he had a strong kinship with,” tweeted MSNBC’s Perry Bacon Jr.
What they really shared is something like a foreign policy outlook, a liberal foreign policy that only occasionally found expression in Obama’s first term. They’re interventionist, but also internationalist, and defined by their opposition to the Iraq War. Rice made sense as secretary of state because she saw the world as Obama does; and the Republican victory is both a sign of presidential weakness and a blow to his worldview.