Battered by Benghazi, Rice withdraws as secretary of state candidate

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Embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice withdrew her name Thursday from consideration to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after months of criticism over her comments about the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

Although the decision had been building for weeks, Mrs. Rice’s request was a stunning setback for President Obama, who angrily defended her in a November news conference and challenged the Republican critics that “they should go after me” over the handling of the Benghazi attack. Mrs. Rice is a longtime senior adviser on foreign policy for the president and had been seen as a front-runner for Foggy Bottom in his second term.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others had criticized Mrs. Rice’s appearances on a series of Sunday talk shows after the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack, which she repeatedly characterized as a largely spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. Several senators said they could not vote to confirm Mrs. Rice as secretary of state because of a lack of trust in her public statements.

Critics argued that the administration had ample evidence by the time the ambassador went on television that terrorists linked to al Qaeda were responsible for the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, another State Department employee and two security workers. Mrs. Rice and others in the administration said she was simply relaying information gleaned by U.S. intelligence services at the time.

“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,” Mrs. Rice wrote in her letter to Mr. Obama, saying she was saddened by the partisanship over her candidacy. “That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country. … Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time.”

Mr. Obama said in a statement Thursday that he is “grateful” that Mrs. Rice will remain in her post at the United Nations, and he decried the criticism of her as politically motivated.

“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,” Mr. Obama said. “The American people can be proud to have a public servant of her caliber and character representing our country.”

Vacancy at State

Republicans said Mrs. Rice made the right decision in backing out, as speculation turned to other candidates Mr. Obama might pick to succeed Mrs. Clinton, who plans to step down early next year.

“I respect Ambassador Rice’s decision,” Mr. Graham said in a statement. “President Obama has many talented people to choose from to serve as our next secretary of state.”

The most prominently rumored candidate for secretary of state is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.

Mr. Obama also was said to have been considering Mr. Kerry to replace Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, but another candidate for the Pentagon job has emerged — former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who had a good relationship with Mr. Obama when the two served together in the Senate.

Mr. Kerry, who defended Mrs. Rice but has kept a low profile as the Benghazi controversy grew, issued a statement praising her record and said he hoped she would continue to serve in her present post.

“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,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement.

But selecting Mr. Kerry could pose a political headache for Mr. Obama and his party, as Democrats would have to defend Mr. Kerry’s seat in a special election should he leave the Senate.

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