South Sudan President Salva Kiir with Susan Rice, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. The state of Sudan was partitioned after the South held a referendum on its future in January 2011., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
December 13, 2012
Rice Ends Bid for Secretary of State, and Fight With G.O.P.
By MARK LANDLER
New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Obama knew before he picked up the phone on Thursday afternoon what Susan E. Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, was calling about: she wanted to take herself out of the running for secretary of state and spare him a fight.
By acceding to Ms. Rice’s request, which she had conveyed to White House aides the night before, Mr. Obama averted a bitter, potentially disruptive battle with Republicans in Congress at the start of his second term and at a time when his administration is struggling to reach a politically difficult deal on the federal budget.
In a statement, the president praised Ms. Rice and expressed some anger over the withering criticism directed at her by Republicans because of comments she made in the aftermath of the lethal attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks,” he said, “her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first.”
By all accounts, Ms. Rice had been Mr. Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton, though recently he seemed to be signaling that her nomination was far from a foregone conclusion. Her decision to withdraw, which senior officials insist Ms. Rice made without prodding from the White House, clears the way for Mr. Obama to nominate Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, officials said.
Republicans say Mr. Kerry would sail through a confirmation process, while several senators had vowed to block Ms. Rice’s nomination, citing what they said were her misleading statements about the Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
By stepping aside, Ms. Rice will allow Mr. Obama to present a full slate of appointees to his national security team as early as next week. Among the other candidates for key posts, officials said, is former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, for secretary of defense. Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who became a critic of the Iraq war, would be supported by many of his former colleagues.
Their nominations would also remove a major source of tension between the White House and Congressional Republicans, who had expanded their attack on Ms. Rice from Benghazi to a broader indictment of her record as a policy maker on Africa, her role in securing American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that came under terrorist attack, and even her personal finances.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and one of Ms. Rice’s fiercest critics, said Thursday that he respected her decision, but added in a statement that he planned “to continue working diligently to get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi.”
In a letter she sent to Mr. Obama before her call, Ms. Rice attributed her decision to a recognition that “the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. The trade-off is simply not worth it to our country.”
Mr. Obama said he accepted her request with regret, describing her in a statement as “an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant” with a “limitless capability to serve our country” — a line one official said signaled that Ms. Rice, who will continue in her job at the United Nations, remains a candidate for other top posts, including national security adviser.
Republicans are eager to see a new appointee, and should it be Mr. Kerry, his party’s 2004 presidential nominee, he would receive a far different reception. “She made her own decision and I think it’s the right decision,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think she would have had a very hard time getting through.” Mr. Kerry, by contrast, is “immensely qualified and he would be easily confirmed,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Kerry heaped praise on Ms. Rice. In a statement, he said, “As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I’ve felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction.”
The drama over Ms. Rice, an outspoken, fast-rising diplomat with close ties to Mr. Obama, began on the Sunday after the Benghazi attack, when she appeared on five television news programs and characterized it as a spontaneous attack gone awry rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. Republicans seized on her remarks in an election-year effort to undermine Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism credentials. Later, after Mr. Obama offered a passionate defense of Ms. Rice, it seemed destined to become a showdown between a re-elected president and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
But in the last two weeks, Mr. Obama tempered his defense of Ms. Rice by noting that he had not made a decision for secretary of state — a sign that he did not want to be hemmed in. Ms. Rice, meanwhile, was put in the position of defending her record for a nomination she had not received. A meeting with Senator Graham and other Republican critics ended badly.
In a television interview last week, Mr. Obama said he did not worry about what “folks say on cable news programs, attacking highly qualified personnel like Susan Rice.” Behind the scenes, his aides said, he was anguished by the choice between Ms. Rice and Mr. Kerry. But some friends of Ms. Rice say the White House could have done more to defend her from the onslaught of attacks.
Ms. Rice, 48, was strongly supported by Mr. Obama’s closest national security aides, who view her as being in sync with the president’s worldview and a champion of some of his boldest foreign policy initiatives, like the NATO military intervention in Libya.
“People in the White House and Obama orbit care deeply about Susan, and feel strongly that the future will be bright for her,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
An early supporter of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign, Ms. Rice has cut a wide swath at the United Nations, where she is currently trying to marshal international sanctions in response to North Korea’s launching of a long-range missile this week.
But Ms. Rice became the focal point of criticism for the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack, and that proved to be only the beginning of her problems. The more Mr. Obama appeared to be leaning toward appointing Ms. Rice, the more critics appeared ready to pile on.
Perhaps the most damaging critique came from Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine. After meeting with Ms. Rice, Ms. Collins said, “I continue to be troubled by the fact that the United Nations ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of a contentious presidential election campaign.”
She also raised a new concern: Ms. Rice’s role in protecting embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that were bombed by terrorists in 1998. While allegations that she did not respond to requests by the embassies for additional security proved groundless, they also echoed decades-old questions that were suddenly being raised about Ms. Rice’s role as an aide on Africa policy during the Clinton administration.
Reporters dug up old anecdotes, like when Ms. Rice, as a young aide in the Clinton White House, once questioned whether the United States should embrace the term “genocide” in Rwanda because it could put President Bill Clinton in an awkward position in midterm elections. For all that, friends of Ms. Rice said she believed she could win nomination and be a successful secretary of state. The hardest part, they said, was explaining to her two children why she had decided to bow out.
Helene Cooper and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.