Washington can move in mysterious ways, but rarely more strangely than now: just why are Republicans so dead set on scuppering Susan Rice?

Susan Rice is an African-American Democrat who cut her political teeth as a foreign policy adviser to Michael Dukakis, the party's defeated 1988 presidential candidate, and entered government in the Clinton Administration. In 2008, she was among the first and most prominent former Clinton officials to back Barack Obama against Hillary for the Democratic presidential nomination.

That alone would surely have earned her a place in the boss' good books. But even without that, her service as a National Security Council official, followed by a fellowship at the Brookings Institution and now almost four years as US ambassador to the United Nations, make Rice amply qualified to be the country's top diplomat. Not, however, if Republicans have their way.

Last week 97 Republican House members sent a letter to the President saying she was unfit for the job.


Less obvious is why. There are many theories, not least personal vendetta. Rice can be blunt and cutting. John McCain, a known grudge-bearer, will not have appreciated Rice calling his foreign policy "reckless" when he was running against Obama in 2008, still less her mocking description of his campaign visit to Baghdad as "strolling around the market in a flak jacket".

Maybe Republicans want to prove their opponents too can mess up on national security, in the Benghazi attack in Libya, just as they did over the September 2001 attacks and Iraq. Maybe Republicans have also dug up earlier incidents to discredit Rice, possibly relating to the Rwandan genocide when she was a top Clinton adviser on Africa.

Maybe they want to tar the Obama presidency, remarkable for the absence of scandal, with any kind of misdeed. Or the motive could be more basic still: to demonstrate that even after a thumping election defeat, Republicans matter.

And whisper it not - race and sex could have something to do with it. As the Washington Post noted, 80 of the 97 signatories of the Republican letter are white males, more than half from states of the old Confederacy. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking House Democrat, who is black, has accused his colleagues of racism while a dozen female Democrats have accused Republicans of sexism.

If so, all one can say, after women's votes gave Obama his win on November 7, is will they ever learn? Female secretaries of state are nothing new: if Rice were to succeed Clinton, four of the last five would have been women (and the fifth was a black man, Colin Powell).