Now that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has failed in her attempt to appease her congressional critics, President Barack Obama should cast a wider search for a successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rice played only a supporting role in the administration's bungled explanations of the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, and is being unfairly maligned for it. While she appears well qualified to be considered for secretary of state, at this point her detractors are too many and her supporters are too few. The president should save his political capital for the many other important political battles ahead.
Rice met with moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine on Wednesday in her ongoing attempt to soften the growing resistance to her potential nomination to replace Clinton. Rice would need Senate confirmation. The meeting didn't go well, with Collins still questioning why Rice said on a series of Sunday news shows five days after the attack that killed four Americans, including America's ambassador to Libya, that it was "extremist elements" and not "terrorists" who were responsible. Rice was working off unclassified talking points she had been given by the intelligence community that purposely left out any reference to al-Qaida affiliates being involved, but that has not quieted Republican anger.
The meeting with Collins came a day after Rice made no headway in meetings with the more partisan Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Afterward, Graham and Ayotte threatened to block Rice's nomination, a possibility under Senate rules. Obama has come to Rice's defense, calling her "extraordinary" and suggesting she could be his choice for the job of America's top diplomat. As a matter of principle, Obama is right that Rice is qualified for the post and has served the nation as a fine U.N. ambassador, but the political realities are not in Rice's favor.
Alternatives include Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, who was critical of the war in Iraq, calling it "an absolute replay of Vietnam." Others equally qualified would have a relatively easy time getting confirmed.
The dust-up over Rice comes just as Obama needs Republican cooperation in averting the so-called fiscal cliff. In January, the Bush-era tax cuts expire and deep spending cuts go into automatic effect. With the House under Republican control, the president will also need Republican partners on other big issues such as immigration and global climate change.
Obama's important second term agenda suggests it would be smart to avoid a protracted fight over nominating Rice, who may not be confirmed by the Senate. If Obama wants to take a hard stand on a key nomination, he should save it for the next vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.