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Susan Rice folds US secretary of state bid

15 december 2012, 11:58
Susan Rice asked President Barack Obama not to pick her as his next secretary of state Thursday, after becoming a lightning rod for Republicans over the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, AFP reports.

Rice, currently US envoy to the United Nations, is a longtime member of Obama's inner circle, and had been a hot favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton as the top US diplomat in the president's second term beginning next year.

But her role as a top defender of the administration over the attack which killed the US ambassador to Libya on September 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.

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.

"We're talking about comprehensive immigration reform, balanced deficit reduction, job creation -- that's what matters.

"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.

It also signaled the White House, in a showdown over taxes and spending with Republicans on Capitol Hill, had concluded the political capital that would have been needed to confirm Rice in the Senate could be better spent elsewhere.

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 UN ambassador with a spot on his cabinet.

The president will hold a closed meeting with Rice on Friday at the White House.

Republicans pounced on Rice after she said on September 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 charge the White House misled the US public as it did not want to own up to a terror attack weeks before the presidential election.

Rice was not under fire for Benghazi alone.

In recent days, there had been whispers over her apparently acerbic character, and criticism over her role in US diplomacy to Africa when she served in Bill Clinton's administration.

Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee who lost out to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, was one of Rice's fiercest critics.

"Senator McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all of the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans," read a statement from his office.

Senator Lindsey Graham, another of Rice's chief Republican critics said on Twitter that Obama had "many talented people to choose from to serve as our next secretary of state."

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."

"We worked closely together to secure tough new sanctions on Iran and North Korea, build an international coalition in Libya, and support the independence of South Sudan," Clinton said.

She added: "From the National Security Council to the State Department to the United Nations, Susan has worked tirelessly to advance our nation's interests and values."

Democratic Senator John Kerry will now be seen as the hot favorite for the post, though officials say no announcements on Obama's second term national security team are imminent.

Kerry has declined to comment on his chances, but issued a warm statement empathizing with Rice's plight.

"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," Kerry said.

Obama is meanwhile considering Hagel for defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta. The two men have been close since they served together in the Senate.

A White House official separately also said that no nominations to Obama's cabinet were expected this week, following a report by Bloomberg News that Hagel was the "likely" nominee and had passed a vetting process.

Hagel, a decorated combat veteran who branded then president George W. Bush's Iraq troop surge strategy the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, served two terms as a Nebraska senator before leaving in 2009.

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, after the former director, retired general David Petraeus, resigned after admitting to an extra-marital affair.

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