Susan Rice has asked US President Barack Obama not to pick her as his next secretary of state, after becoming a lightning rod for Republicans over the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Rice, currently US envoy to the UN, is a longtime member of Obama’s inner circle and had been a favorite to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the top US diplomat.
However, her role as a top administration defender over the attack which killed the US ambassador to Libya on Sept. 11, drew her into a furious row with Republicans keen to dent Obama after his re-election victory.
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly, to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice said in a letter to Obama on Thursday.
Rice told NBC, which first reported her decision, that she was determined not to detract from the crucial first months of Obama’s second term — even though she had not even been nominated as secretary of state.
“We’re talking about comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation — that’s what matters,” Rice said. “To the extent that my nomination could have delayed or distracted or deflected, or maybe even [made] some of these priorities impossible to achieve, I didn’t want that.”
Rice’s move came amid strengthening indications that Obama is making progress in naming his new national security team.
Sources said Republican former senator Chuck Hagel could become secretary of defense.
The White House, rowing over taxes and spending with Republicans, had pragmatically concluded the political capital needed to confirm Rice in the Senate could be better spent elsewhere.
However, some observers may sense weakness in Obama’s decision not to fight for Rice against opposition from Republicans — including the man he defeated for the White House in 2008, Senator John McCain.
Obama, who aides say is philosophically and personally close to Rice, issued a statement condemning the “unfair and misleading attacks” on her and said she would stay on as US Ambassador to the UN with a spot on his cabinet.
Republicans pounced on Rice after she said on Sept. 16 that the Benghazi attack was a “spontaneous” reaction to an anti-Muslim video, using CIA talking points she now admits were wrong.
Extremists linked to al-Qaeda are now blamed for the attack and Republicans said the White House did not want to own up to a terror attack weeks before the presidential elections.
Rice reiterated in a Washington Post editorial on Thursday that she had made no attempt to mislead the US public. However, she was not under fire for Benghazi alone.
There were whispers over her apparently acerbic character, and there was criticism over her role in US diplomacy to Africa when she served in Bill Clinton’s administration.
Democratic Senator John Kerry is now the favorite for the post, though officials say no personnel announcements are imminent.
Rice’s move throws the race to succeed Clinton — who has said she will not serve in Obama’s second term — wide open.
Clinton praised Rice as “an indispensable partner over the past four years.”
Obama is meanwhile considering Hagel for defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta, sources said. The two men have been close since they served together in the Senate.
Hagel, a decorated combat veteran who branded then-US president George W. Bush’s Iraq troop surge strategy the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, served two terms as a Nebraska senator.
A decision by Obama to pick a Republican to lead the Pentagon would be seen as an attempt to show bipartisanship, although Hagel is seen as a centrist on foreign policy who has broken with his party on several key issues.
The president must also find a new head for the CIA.