WASHINGTON (TIP): A furious political scrap has erupted in full public view in the US capital over a potential successor to Hillary Clinton in the State Department. Republican lawmakers have threatened to block the confirmation of Susan Rice, the US envoy to UN, if President Obama nominates her for Secretary of State. The President has dared them to take him on.
At the heart of the wrangle are charges from lawmakers that Rice misled them on the events in Benghazi, Libya, when she suggested that the killing of the U.S ambassador there was the result of a spontaneous uprising rather than a terrorist attack. They have demanded an inquiry into the incident and have said they have no confidence in Rice, who is an Obama acolyte and one of three candidates in running to succeed Clinton, John Kerry and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon being the other two.
But at a White House press conference on Wednesday — his first since March — Obama bristled at suggestions that he would be forced to back down if he nominated Rice, and strongly defended the UN ambassador. Rice, the President grated, made her presentation at the request of the White House and gave her best understanding of the intelligence that had been provided to her. If McCain and Graham and others want to go after somebody, ”they should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them.” “But for them to go after the UN ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received and to besmirch her reputation is outrageous,” Obama fumed, adding if they are going after Rice because she’s an easy target, ”then they’ve got a problem with me.” It was the most combative President Obama got during the hour long session with the media in the East Room, although the press conference also touched on two other explosive topics — the Petraeus affair and the fiscal cliff issue. Other than that minor eruption, the President, who appeared to have banished his gray hair overnight, exuded good cheer and confidence after his famous election win. Obama maintained he had not made a decision on naming Rice but “if I think that she would be the best person to serve America in the capacity, then I will nominate her. That’s not a determination that I’ve made yet.”
The current Foggy Bottom incumbent, who has expressed her desire to step down, was meanwhile in Perth, Australia, on her final farewell tours. Opinion is divided on whether Obama will expend political capital in pushing Rice should McCain and Graham dig in their heels and fry her nomination. Democrats have 53 seats in the Senate and the support of two Independents; they need 60 votes to pull Rice through, not an impossible task. But the President also has the option of drafting Rice as his National Security Advisor — a staff position that does not require Senate confirmation — and sending his current NSA Tom Donilon to State. Another possibility is that he may nominate John Kerry — the Senate will happily confirm one of its own — although it will reduce the Democrats’ strength in the chamber.
Capitals across the world are watching the developments. Whichever way it goes, New Delhi mandarins say they can live with it in the spirit of accepting what is inevitable, although they lean towards Rice despite occasional run-ins with her at the United Nations. Rice recently went on a private trip to India — including a mandatory visit to Agra — but found time to exchange notes with NSA Shiv Shankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, an exercise that reportedly went off well. Kerry on the other hand — despite his longer engagement with foreign policy and India — invites a roll of the eyebrows because of his ardent championing of US aid to Pakistan to buy its support. That stale policy, repeated every few years, is now deemed a failure.