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Obama must decide whether to spend his capital on Susan Rice

Susan Rice talked on her cell phone at the United Nations last week.

Henny Ray Abram/AFP/Getty Images

Susan Rice talked on her cell phone at the United Nations last week.

If President Obama is sure Susan Rice is the ideal person to head his foreign policy team in his second term, he should go ahead and nominate her as secretary of state, even at some political cost. Presidents deserve considerable latitude in choosing their top appointees, and getting the right candidate in a post as important this one is worth a fight. But is Rice indeed that candidate? While her much-criticized comments after an attack on a US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, shouldn’t in themselves disqualify her from serving as secretary of state, neither do they reflect well on her leadership qualities.

Unless Obama moves swiftly to nominate Rice, currently the US ambassador to the United Nations, she should announce that she is withdrawing herself from consideration, and Obama should choose his next secretary of state from the pool of other promising candidates, which includes Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

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Rice has come under fire from Republicans for her early account of what happened on Sept. 11, when militants attacked the consulate in Libya’s second-largest city and killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. Several days later, Rice maintained in appearances on Sunday morning talk shows that the attack was a spontaneous outgrowth of demonstrations over an anti-Muslim video; “it spun from there into something much, much more violent,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” when extremist elements with heavy weapons joined in. She went on to say the administration had no reason to concluded that the incident was “premeditated or preplanned.”

While these remarks echoed talking points provided by intelligence sources, they undoubtedly served a political purpose: in the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Obama’s team had reason to dispel any suggestion that it had failed to protect US diplomats or that Al Qaeda-like groups were on the offensive. Rice’s remarks also seemed to contradict, for no good reason, what a number of Libyan and US sources surmised from the outset: that some militant organization planned the attack in advance.

Some of Republicans’ criticisms of Rice are in bad faith; their beef is less with her than with the administration that she was representing. Still, a secretary of state should be more than just a mouthpiece for the president she serves. Hillary Clinton’s high profile and independent power base have given her heft in dealing with other governments — and with Republicans in Congress — which in turn has helped make her such an effective secretary of state.

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Should Obama opt not to nominate Rice, he has other strong candidates — including Kerry, whose long tenure in the Senate and status as a former Democratic presidential nominee add to his stature. The list also includes Jon Huntsman, the former Republican Utah governor who served as US ambassador to China under Obama before resigning to run for president; his appointment would signal the rising importance of Asia in US foreign policy, and a bipartisan spirit.

If Obama is convinced that Rice would carry out his priorities better than anyone else, he should nominate her. Short of that, a knock-down, drag-out fight over Rice — a nominee who’s easily assailed, for not just nakedly political reasons but for some legitimate ones — would be an inauspicious way for Obama to begin his next term.

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