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Obama's Possible Choice For Secretary Of State Fights For Senate Support

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice spent a second day on November 28 trying to win the support of Republican senators who have threatened to block her confirmation if President Barack Obama nominates her to succeed retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

So far, Rice has failed to convince skeptics that the erroneous explanation she gave for the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was not part of a politically motivated cover-up to help the White House before the presidential election.

U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi raid, which was carried out by an Al-Qaeda affiliated group. But Rice appeared on several television news shows a few days later and suggested it was a spontaneous act of violence by a mob angered by an anti-Islamic video. She has since acknowledged this was incorrect, but said that version was based on information provided by the CIA at the time -- and was by no means calculated to downplay any perceived Al-Qaeda resurgence.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), after meeting Rice on November 27, said he remained unconvinced.

"Bottom line, I’m more disturbed now than I was before that the 16 September explanation about how four Americans died in Benghazi, Libya by Ambassador Rice, I think, does not do justice to the reality at the time and in hindsight clearly was completely wrong," Graham said.

Also in that meeting were Republican Senators Kelly Ayotte (New Hampshire) and John McCain (Arizona), who said the three lawmakers were "significantly troubled by many of the answers” they heard from Rice.

“It is clear that the information that she gave the American people was incorrect when she said that it was a spontaneous demonstration triggered by a hateful video," McCain said. "It was not, and there was compelling evidence at the time that that was certainly not the case, including statements by Libyans as well as other Americans who were fully aware that people don’t bring mortars and rocket propelled grenades to spontaneous demonstrations.”

Other Republican senators who met with Rice were similarly reproachful. Susan Collins (Maine) said she was “troubled by the fact that the UN ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role at the height of the contentious presidential election campaign.” Robert Corker (Tennessee) suggested that Rice was too partisan to be secretary of state.

Rice's bid for support among senators -- who vote on all cabinet nominations -- is considered unusual because Obama hasn’t yet announced his choice for secretary of state. He is also reportedly considering Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts and national security adviser Tom Donilon. But Rice is so widely considered Obama’s leading candidate that some Republicans have moved preemptively to block her nomination.

Loyalty And Respect

Such early, and earnest, opposition has some observers asking whether Rice’s nomination is worth Obama fighting what is certain to be a difficult confirmation battle.

“This is a big decision for the president," Stephen Hess, who has served on the White House staff of two U.S. presidents and advised two others, says. "Sure, he likes her a lot, he considers her one of his leading candidates -- possible the leading candidate -- and now he’s got to make an assessment of how damaged she’s been and how difficult it would be for him to make the nomination, have it confirmed, and have her as the next secretary of state.”

Hess, who's now the senior fellow emeritus of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says Obama has deep loyalty and respect for Rice: the president recently praised her work at the UN as having “skill and professionalism, toughness and grace.” The pair’s relationship goes back to Obama’s first campaign for president, when Rice was his top foreign policy adviser.

But Hess says Obama has to weigh his desire to have Rice as his top diplomat against the need to expend his political capital wisely.

“There’s only a certain amount of one’s time, effort, and reputation one can put on the line for something like this," Hess says. "This is, in some ways, the most important period of the next four years. A president having just been reelected, about to be inaugurated, has more influence, more power, and more opportunity to do things than he’s possibly ever likely to have again in his second term. How much of it does he wish to spend trying to get the nomination of Susan Rice -- should he make it -- through the United States Senate, given the opposition that has already come up?”

If Rice does end up in Foggy Bottom she’ll be following the path of another UN ambassador who went on to become secretary of state: Madeleine Albright, Rice’s mentor and boss when she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

Previous to that post, Rice served on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council as director of international organizations and peacekeeping and later, as senior director for African affairs.

Hess says the 48-year-old Rice, who has a doctorate from Oxford University, possesses a rare combination of diplomatic and scholarly expertise.

“She’s quite broad-based in her knowledge of international affairs, a scholar as well as a practitioner, and in part, it may be felt that the UN -- dealing with all the other countries of the world, being engaged in debate, being engaged in lobbying -- this is good preparation," Hess says.

Obama has already indicated that he’s willing to fight for Rice, if it comes to that. At a November 14 press conference, he vehemently defended her credentials and chastised Republican senators for "besmirching" her reputation. And he told reporters that, should he decide Rice is the best candidate for the job, he won’t hesitate to nominate her.