On Thursday, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, formally withdrew her name from consideration to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, caving in to unremitting Republican criticism over her response to the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya. "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 President Obama. Obama accepted her withdrawal, saying, "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."
The controversy centers over Rice's claim that the Benghazi attack had stemmed from a spontaneous riot against an anti-Muslim video. The White House later retracted that statement, admitting that there had been no riot, and ever since, Republicans have suggested that Rice was part of some sort of elaborate cover-up. All available evidence shows that Rice was merely repeating erroneous talking points given to her by intelligence agencies, but that has hardly stopped the GOP from virtually storming the White House with pitchforks and torches. Democrats have accused Republicans — particularly Sen. John McCain, who has led the charge against Rice — of conjuring a conspiracy theory to weaken Obama.
As many people have noted, there are plenty of good reasons to oppose Rice's nomination as secretary of state. However, making a mistake, which was fully and openly retracted days later, doesn't seem to be one of them. As Ben Smith at BuzzFeed points out, Rice is "hardly the first official to pass on bad intelligence… [Condoleezza Rice] warned, inaccurately, of a nuclear-armed Iraq when the stakes were far higher."
As Rice writes in her letter, a Senate confirmation battle in January could have gotten quite ugly, and it's easy to see why the Obama administration would want to avoid that. Still, the president has been boasting a confident swagger during the fiscal cliff debate, and it's somewhat surprising to see his team ditch Rice so cravenly. Administration officials obviously didn't want to spend even more political capital defending her, but liberals will be disheartened to see McCain get away with scuttling Rice's nomination so easily. And Republicans may feel emboldened to attack future candidates who must go through the Senate confirmation process, such as Supreme Court justices.
Rice's withdrawal came just a few hours after Bloomberg reported that former Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Republican from Nebraska, was being considered for the secretary of defense position. Previous reports had claimed that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was being considered for either secretary of state or secretary of defense, which suggests he may now be Obama's top choice to become secretary of state — as well as the greatest beneficiary of McCain's crusade.