WikiLeaks, Hillary and Susan Rice

Will the scandal push Secretary Clinton over the edge?

In a wide-ranging press conference at United Nations headquarters on December 2nd, the United States' UN ambassador Susan Rice continued to play down any negative impact from WikiLeaks' release of sensitive State Department documents. She also denied that any of the U.S. diplomats, at least those under her control, had done anything improper. She carried over the same theme that she relayed to reporters earlier in the week on November 29th when the State Department leaks were first published. Responding to reporters' questions on both occasions, Rice said that "our diplomats are just that - diplomats. That's what they do every day. They do the work of diplomats and nothing else."

Rice did manage during her December 2nd press conference to go beyond her previous bland remarks in one respect. This time she used the words "reprehensible" and "inexcusable" to describe the leaks. However, this rhetorical slap on WikiLeaks' wrist hardly compares with her boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who on November 29th told reporters in Washington that "this disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests, it is an attack on the international community.” Hillary also claimed that the latest leaks put "people's lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems."

Rice does not appear to be on the same page as Clinton. She believes that everything is fine in UN paradise irrespective of WikiLeaks.

One would think that the disclosure of State Department cables instructing U.S. delegates at the United Nations and at embassies abroad to collect highly personal information concerning foreign diplomats and UN officials, right up to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, would have disturbed Ambassador Rice. But even that did not faze her.

Rice refused to make any comment on the substance of these explosive cables, referring to them as "alleged classified material."

As for the impact of their disclosure, Rice's attitude was essentially "no worries." She told reporters that, aside from a bit of "unpleasantness" and "awkwardness" after the news first came out, she was gratified to have received the support of many of her colleagues in other UN delegations. "They understand," Rice said, "we are here to work with them as partners and colleagues." She expressed confidence that American diplomats at the United Nations and around the world would continue "excellently the work they do every day in supporting and advancing the interests of the United States."

Hillary Clinton appears to be far more worried than Rice, or maybe Rice is just a much better actress.

In any case, Rice has put as much distance between herself and Clinton on the WikiLeaks issue as she could without appearing too obvious.

For example, when asked to comment on "complications" caused by the WikiLeaks disclosures detailing alleged U.S. spying on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Rice claimed that she wasn't aware of what "complications" were discussed and suggested to reporters that they ask Hillary herself. Is Rice truly out of the loop even on the handling of the sensitivities of the United States' relationship with Ban Ki-moon following the embarrassing disclosures, or is she perfectly happy to leave Hillary Clinton alone twisting in the wind?

In another development, Rice, who is presiding as the president of the UN Security Council this month, announced to reporters that Vice President Joe Biden would be chairing a high-level Security Council event on Iraq on December 15th. That seems a bit odd considering that high level foreign policy discussions involving Iraq should be part of Hillary Clinton's portfolio as Secretary of State.

Rice also responded in the affirmative to my question whether the Obama administration supports Japan as well as India in their quest to occupy new permanent seats on the UN Security Council, if reforms are approved to expand the size of the Council. That is interesting in light of the fact that, in one of the cables released by WikiLeaks, Hillary Clinton allegedly described both India and Japan as "self-appointed front-runners" for any new permanent Security Council seats. She also allegedly directed U.S. diplomats to collect minute details about their counterparts from the "self-appointed front-runners" who were stationed at UN headquarters. So while Rice is talking up Japan to join India as new permanent members of the Security Council, Hillary was supposedly investigating their diplomats.

One has to wonder whether Hillary Clinton is being marginalized in addition to being saddled with the burden of explaining away the embarrassing leaked State Department documents. Is Rice eyeing her job?

Recall that during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary campaign, Susan Rice was a key Obama foreign policy advisor. She was part of the campaign team that criticized Hillary's lack of any substantive foreign policy experience. Rice, on the other hand, is a Rhodes scholar who earned a doctorate in international relations at Oxford University, joined President Clinton's National Security Council staff in 1993, and served in a senior capacity as an assistant secretary of state.

Even while serving in the Obama administration representing the United States at the United Nations, Rice shuttles between New York and Washington. She considers Washington as her home and has occupied an office at Hillary Clinton's State Department. She has also been a member of the National Security Council Principals Committee.

The Clintons are famous for watching their backs and being political survivors. Only this time, Hillary may be facing her Waterloo.

Joseph Klein is the author of a new book entitled Lethal Engagement: Barack Hussein Obama, the United Nations and Radical Islam.