Rice row puts John Kerry in pole position for post of US secretary

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry. Picture: AP
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry. Picture: AP
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FORMER presidential candidate and Democratic Senator John Kerry is the likely choice for the next US secretary of state after embattled United Nations ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration on Thursday.

President Barack Obama met privately with Mrs Rice yesterday after a bitter, weeks-long stand-off with Republican senators who declared they would fight to defeat her nomination.

Mrs Rice withdrew when it became clear her political troubles were not going away, and support inside the White House for her potential nomination had been waning in recent days, administration officials said.

Mr Obama used the occasion to criticise Republicans who were adamantly opposed to Mrs Rice’s possible nomination.

“While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character,” he said.

“I am saddened we have reached this point,” Mrs Rice said.

Mr Obama made clear she would remain in his inner circle, saying he was grateful she would stay as “our ambassador at the United Nations and a key member of my cabinet and national security team.”

Mrs Rice, too, said in her letter she would be staying.

Outgoing secretary of state Hillary Clinton, in a brief statement, said that Mrs Rice had “been an indispensable partner over the past four years” and that she was confident “that she will continue to represent the United States with strength and skill”.

Mrs Rice had become the face of the bungled administration account of what happened in Benghazi, Libya in September, when four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, were killed in what is now known to have been a terrorist attack.

At issue is the explanation Mrs Rice offered in interviews five days after the attack in Libya. She has conceded that her initial account – that a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Muslim video produced in the US triggered the attack – was wrong, but she has insisted she was not trying to mislead the American people. Information for her account was provided by intelligence officials.

Mr Obama had defiantly declared he would chose her for secretary of state regardless of the political criticism, if he wanted, but such a choice could have gotten his second term off to a turbulent start with Capitol Hill.

But a letter to Mr Obama, Mrs Rice said she was convinced the confirmation process would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly.”

“Those of you who know me know that I’m a fighter, but not at the cost of what’s right for our country,” she tweeted later.

Mrs Rice may end up close to Mr Obama’s side in another way, as his national security adviser should Tom Donilon move on to another position, though that is not expected imminently. The security adviser position would not require senate confirmation.

Mrs Rice’s efforts to win over sceptical Republican senators in unusual, private sessions on Capitol Hill fell short. The senators emerged from the meetings still expressing doubts about her qualifications.

In a brief statement, a spokesman for one of those senators, John McCain, said Mr McCain “thanks ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi.”

In an opinion piece published late Thursday on The Washington Post’s website, Rice said, “In recent weeks, new lines of attack have been raised to malign my character and my career. Even before I was nominated for any new position, a steady drip of manufactured charges painted a wholly false picture of me. This has interfered increasingly with my work on behalf of the United States at the United Nations and with America’s agenda.” Attention now shifts to Mr Kerry, who came close to winning the presidency in 2004 and has been seen as wanting the job. In a statement, he made no mention of his own candidacy but praised Mrs Rice, who was an adviser to him in his presidential bid. Mr Kerry was an early backer of Mr Obama and was under consideration to become his first secretary of state. Mr Obama has dispatched Mr Kerry to foreign hotspots on his behalf.

Mr Kerry would be almost certain to be easily confirmed by his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

His move would create a potential problem for Democrats by opening a senate seat – one that recently defeated Republican Scott Brown is eyeing.

Mr Rice’s decision comes ahead of the anticipated release next week of a report by an accountability review board into the attack on the Benghazi mission. The report ordered by Mrs Clinton focuses on the run-up to and the actual attack and is not expected to mention Rice’s role in its aftermath.

Mrs Clinton is to testify about the report before Congress next Thursday.