The decision of Susan Rice to withdraw her name as a potential candidate for Secretary of State in the face of strong criticism from Republicans and some Democrats means President Obama won’t be able to appoint a person his aides said he has “a personal bond” with and who shares his views on foreign policy perhaps more than almost any of his other top advisers.
Rice has been working with Obama since 2005 and been a key figure in defining and executing Obama’s foreign policy vision, a difficult-to-define mix that includes an intense concern with America’s reputation around the world, a willingness to intervene and stop mass killings in places like Libya, and a determination to see foreign policy challenges outside of traditional parameters.
She and the president have a strong personal rapport that goes beyond politics, according to aides of both. When Obama had a dinner with a dozen close friends the Friday after Election Day that included Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Rice was also in attendance. Few have survived the intense six years of Obama’s campaign and then administration, but Rice was advising him before Obama even started his presidential run, helped create and lead the foreign policy team for the 2008 campaign and has remained four years in her Cabinet slot at the UN.
Obama relies on a small circle of close, long-standing aides, and Rice is well-liked in that group. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who helps write Obama’s foreign policy speeches and is a major player in administration decisions, told Foreign Policy earlier this year he would “walk through fire for Susan Rice,” describing her as “incredibly faithful and loyal.”
And Rice has quietly participated in some the major accomplishments of the administration’s foreign policy, particularly the UN resolution last year that gave NATO forces broad power to intervene in Libya and eventually led to a campaign of airstrikes that helped force Moammar Gadhafi from power.
“I think they are aligned in their world view, on America and its role in the world and how to exercise American power and diplomacy in our interests,” said Jonathan Prince, a former top State Department official.
But Rice’s potential ascension had turned into a major political problem. Republicans had organized an ironclad opposition to her, arguing statements she made about the attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya in September that turned out to be inaccurate were disqualifying. The other leading Secretary of State candidate, John Kerry, is widely regarded as an excellent pick and one who would sail through a confirmation process in the Senate. And even some Democrats have said she is not the perfect candidate, citing her at times blunt style.
“If nominated, I am now convinced the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly,” Rice said in her letter to the president withdrawing her name.
The decision likely means Rice’s swift rise through the Democratic national security establishment could end without her obtaining her dream job. The Washington, D.C. native won a Rhodes scholarship after attending Stanford, served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and then was the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at age 33, one of the youngest ever to hold that job.