Republican attacks force Rice to withdraw as Secretary of State

Obama's preferred candidate pulls out after backlash over embassy attack

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, abruptly withdrew herself from consideration by President Barack Obama as his next Secretary of State saying the resistance from Republicans because of controversial statements she made in the wake of the deadly attack in Benghazi would simply be too disruptive.

Her decision means Mr Obama faces a limited set of choices for the post of America's top diplomat as Hillary Clinton prepares to depart the State Department at the start of his second term. The most visible alternative for the slot would appear to be Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Another whose name has come into the frame is Jon Huntsman, who was Mr Obama's ambassador to China before he run for the Republican presidential nomination before dropping out early in the process last winter.

The withdrawal is early blood for the Republicans who, led by Senator John McCain, have run a harsh campaign against Ms Rice. They contend she misled the public by saying on television shows on the Sunday morning after the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that it had grown spontaneously out of riots sparked by an anti-Islam video when US intelligence appeared by then to have already concluded that terrorist elements were responsible.

Had Mr Obama pushed ahead and nominated her the confirmation process would surely have been bloody and cost him significant political capital in Congress which he may need for other battles, like settling budget and deficit disputes. On a personal level, Mr Obama will be dismayed; Ms Rice, who is privately extremely wealthy and married to a Canadian, is a close friend of Michelle Obama.

In a letter to the President, Ms Rice said she understood the problems her seeking the job would create. "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," she said.

After talking to Ms Rice by phone, Mr Obama acquiesced. "While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, 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," he said in a statement.

In a press conference in November, shortly after his re-election, Mr Obama hit out at Mr McCain and fellow Republican Lindsey Graham for poisoning the waters for Ms Rice even before he had made a decision about whom to nominate for the Secretary of State job.

"If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after someone, they should go after me," Obama said at a White House news conference in November. "When they go after the UN ambassador, apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me."

John Kerry, the presidential candidate in 2004, would be far more likely to receive an easy ride in the Senate, where he has plenty of friendships that cross party lines. Republicans might also like Mr Kerry to be nominated because it would open a chance for them to nab his seat in the senatorial election that would follow in Massachusetts. Last night Mr Kerry praised Ms Rice as "an extraordinarily capable and dedicated public servant".

"I've defended her publicly and wouldn't hesitate to do so again because I know her character and I know her commitment," Mr Kerry 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."

Ms Rice was asked by the White House to represent the administration when she went before the cameras days after the 11 September attacks which killed four Americans including the ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

She spoke apparently using talking points given to her by the CIA from which any references to the possible involvement of terrorists or al-Qa'ida had been dropped. Her performance came to symbolise the confused message delivered by the administration in that period.

Contenders

John Kerry

The senior US Senator from Massachusetts is a prominent foreign policy expert and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is both close to the President and boasts a well of support in Congress, something that should smooth his confirmation if, as expected, he is named as the country's next top diplomat.

John Huntsman

The former Republican governor of Utah served as America's envoy to China between 2009 and 2011. A moderate voice from inside the GOP ranks, he is seen as a credible candidate who at the same time could help the President curry favour with Congressional Republicans.

Chuck Hagel

The former Republican Senator has been named as a likely candidate for the Pentagon, once the incumbent Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, steps down. Reports suggest he could be nominated as early as this month – but Ms Rice's move might lead to a broader rethink at the White House.

Nikhil Kumar

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