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Susan Rice is just the latest victim of the endless Washington game

World Focus

On hearing that the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, had taken herself out of the running to be the next Secretary of State, her Russian counterpart in New York, Vitaly Churkin, said he would be asking Moscow for double pay if that meant she was staying at the Security Council for the next four years.

Maybe he was intimating that Ms Rice is an admirable adversary, as the world body tries to bridge divisions on matters as critical as the Syrian civil war and the Iran nuclear stand-off. But  Mr Churkin seemed also to be hinting that he finds her insufferable. “Abrasive” is a word often attached to her by people who have worked in her circle.

Ms Rice withdrew from consideration for the job late on Thursday in a letter to President Barack Obama, acknowledging that the flak she had taken from Republicans over statements she made in the wake of the attacks in September on the US consulate in Benghazi meant her confirmation was certain to be a struggle. She met with Mr Obama in the Oval Office yesterday, presumably to be soothed; they are long-time friends.

It may not exactly have been her fault that when she was dispatched to the Sunday TV shows after the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens with inaccurate “talking points” suggesting that protesters infuriated by an American video insulting Islam had invaded the compound,  when it was already clear to many that al-Qa’ida-linked extremists had in fact been responsible.

Democrats yesterday expressed horror and indignation at her fate, calling it unfair. Were they really surprised? Washington is a vicious town.

The campaign to block Ms Rice’s nomination, led by senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, started before the November election and was initially part of an effort to help Mitt Romney and discredit Mr Obama.Then when Ms Rice had the chance to explain herself on Capitol Hill at the end of last month, she blew it.

That was surely when Mr Obama decided to cut her loose. It would be charitable, but probably naïve, to assume that she decided to write the letter without prompting from the White House. The president is stuck in fraught negotiations with the Republicans to avert “the fiscal cliff”, a looming wave of tax increases and spending cuts. The body of Ms Rice was an offering.

True, it means that first blood in the endless Washington war has gone to the Republicans. But the president is playing a longer game, and he has the luxury of a more-than-decent fallback option for Hillary Clinton’s job:  Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2009.

For Ms Rice, there is certain speculation of a considerable consolation prize – National Security Adviser. But enough bad odour has collected around her by now that that seems unlikely. Four more years in New York might be it.