By Julian Pecquet - 12/14/12 01:07 AM EST
Susan Rice on Thursday withdrew her name from consideration as President Obama’s next secretary of State, allowing the White House to avoid a bitter confirmation battle with Senate Republicans.
In a letter to Obama notifying the president of her decision, the ambassador to the United Nations said she wanted to spare the White House a heated battle with those who have criticized her over the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Obama had lashed out at Rice’s critics — even calling them out by name in a press conference — but, on Thursday, he appeared to acknowledge that a bitter partisan fight was not worth having.
“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks,” the president said in a statement, “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.”
Rice’s decision leaves Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) as the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to step down early next year. Kerry was believed to be in the running for secretary of Defense, but that role now looks likely to go to former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).
“I’ve known and worked closely with Susan Rice not just at the U.N., but in my own campaign for president,” Kerry said in a statement. “I’ve defended her publicly and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again, because I know her character and I know her commitment.”
Thursday’s decision is a reversal for the president, who had vowed to stand by Rice even as Republican opposition intensified. Obama used his first press conference since winning reelection to denounce two of her toughest critics — Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — by name, calling their attacks “outrageous.”
“When they go after the U.N. ambassador, apparently because they think she’s an easy target, then they’ve got a problem with me,” Obama said on Nov. 14. “Let me say specifically about Susan Rice: She has done exemplary work. She has represented the United States and our interests in the United Nations with skill and professionalism and toughness and grace. And should I choose, if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity of the State Department, then I will nominate her.”
Republicans refused to back down, however, even after Rice met with several of her fiercest critics on Capital Hill.
That forced the president to weigh the price he was willing to pay to nominate a faithful friend who served as his foreign policy adviser during the 2008 presidential campaign. Republicans didn’t make the decision any easier by repeatedly asserting that Kerry would sail through the Senate if he were nominated.
“I respect Ambassador Rice’s decision,” Graham said Thursday.
McCain’s office echoed that sentiment.
“Sen. McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well,” McCain communications director Brian Rogers said in a statement.
Republican criticism focused on Rice’s comments on national television linking the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans to a protest gone awry. The administration has since labeled the attack an act of terrorism.
The administration defended Rice, saying the comments five days after the attack were based on evolving intelligence. And they denied that she misled voters to protect the president’s reputation on national security ahead of the November elections, as some Republicans have claimed. Obama has also said that singling Rice out was particularly unfair, since she had no direct role in the security lapses at the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Rice, for her part, struck a defiant tone.
“The position of secretary of State should never be politicized,” she wrote to the president. “I am saddened that we have reached this point, even before you have decided whom to nominate.”
In an interview with NBC, Rice said she did not regret the talk-show appearances that might have cost her the State Department job.
“I don’t regret doing it,” Rice said. “When you’re a diplomat and a public official and a tragedy happens and it’s related to the work we do, it’s our obligation to explain it as best we can to the American people.”
But she admitted that she had aspired to become secretary of State.
“I would have been very honored to serve in that job ... how could you not, in my field, want to serve at the highest level?” Rice said.
Her decision follows her visit to Capitol Hill late last month in a last-ditch attempt to save her nomination. But her meetings with five crucial Republicans — Sens. McCain, Graham, Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Susan Collins (Maine) — backfired when they came out of their meetings saying they were more disturbed than ever about the administration’s response to the Benghazi attack.
Rice’s chances of getting the nomination nod have seemed remote since then. In his statement Thursday, however, Obama said she would continue to play an active role in his administration’s foreign policy in the years to come.
“I have every confidence that Susan has limitless capability to serve our country now and in the years to come,” Obama said, “and know that I will continue to rely on her as an adviser and friend.”