Even as debate rages on about whether Sheryl Sandberg or Anne-Marie Slaughter is right, the Rice episode demonstrates that while a healthy debate is a good thing to have, it’s of little solace to those whose careers and reputations have been arbitrarily maligned. Sandburg and Slaughter are two women who have excelled tremendously, one in the private sector and the other in academia and policy. Yet their experiences do not necessarily translate into politics. "Leaning in" against a wall of ageing senatorial male obstinacy could carry Rice but so far. In fact, her assertiveness, strength and bluntness may have worked against her. Rice, whose leadership style and personality may be seen as too aggressive for a woman, simply behaves in a way that makes some men in Washington uncomfortable.
How many would claim that former Vice President Cheney was held back in his political career by any of those same qualities? Why, in his nomination to be Ambassador to the U.N., was John Bolton's famously brusque style seen as an asset – as a valued trait in defense of America's interests? When Ambassador Rice was rumored to have called an ill-advised French proposal for intervention in Mali what it now appears to be – "crap" – she was criticized.
The Rice saga provides a cogent example of why the policy-making process is broken. We are led to believe that it is a “process” — a highly complex calculation based on salient criteria of various competencies and capacities. But this masks a reality that is still plainly political. And because it is political, gender biased. She was an exceptional candidate with the right credentials, but she leaned in and was pushed out.
Susan Rice is once again being considered for high office, this time as National Security Advisor. Though she will not need to be confirmed for the post, her detractors may attempt to repeat their successful campaign of innuendo and inaccuracy they waged so successfully four months ago. The president’s foreign policy prerogatives could again be challenged by naked political maneuvering against one of the strongest women in Washington. In a city long plagued by failures of leadership and will, that would be a mistake.
Whitaker is the former U.S. Trade Representative for Africa and CEO of The Whitaker Group, a business consultancy focused on Africa.