Embattled U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice withdrew her name Thursday from consideration to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after months of criticism over her comments about the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
Although the decision had been building for weeks, Mrs. Rice's request was a stunning setback for President Obama, who angrily defended her in a November news conference and challenged the Republican critics that "they should go after me" over the handling of the Benghazi attack. Mrs. Rice is a longtime senior adviser on foreign policy for the president and had been seen as a front-runner for Foggy Bottom in his second term.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and others had criticized Mrs. Rice's appearances on a series of Sunday talk shows after the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack, which she repeatedly characterized as a largely spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. Several senators said they could not vote to confirm Mrs. Rice as secretary of state because of a lack of trust in her public statements.
Critics argued that the administration had ample evidence by the time the ambassador went on television that terrorists linked to al Qaeda were responsible for the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, another State Department employee and two security workers. Mrs. Rice and others in the administration said she was simply relaying information gleaned by U.S. intelligence services at the time.
"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," Mrs. Rice wrote in her letter to Mr. Obama, saying she was saddened by the partisanship over her candidacy. "That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country. ... Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time."
Mr. Obama said in a statement Thursday that he is "grateful" that Mrs. Rice will remain in her post at the United Nations, and he decried the criticism of her as politically motivated.
"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," Mr. Obama said. "The American people can be proud to have a public servant of her caliber and character representing our country."
Vacancy at State
Republicans said Mrs. Rice made the right decision in backing out, as speculation turned to other candidates Mr. Obama might pick to succeed Mrs. Clinton, who plans to step down early next year.
"I respect Ambassador Rice's decision," Mr. Graham said in a statement. "President Obama has many talented people to choose from to serve as our next secretary of state."
The most prominently rumored candidate for secretary of state is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat.
Mr. Obama also was said to have been considering Mr. Kerry to replace Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, but another candidate for the Pentagon job has emerged — former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Republican who had a good relationship with Mr. Obama when the two served together in the Senate.
Mr. Kerry, who defended Mrs. Rice but has kept a low profile as the Benghazi controversy grew, issued a statement praising her record and said he hoped she would continue to serve in her present post.
"As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I've felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction," Mr. Kerry said in a statement.
But selecting Mr. Kerry could pose a political headache for Mr. Obama and his party, as Democrats would have to defend Mr. Kerry's seat in a special election should he leave the Senate.
There is already speculation in foreign-policy circles that Mrs. Rice may be moving to another post — White House national security adviser if incumbent Tom Donilon moves over to be Mr. Obama's chief of staff in his second term. The national security post, unlike secretary of state, does not require Senate confirmation.
In a brief statement, Mrs. Clinton seemed to hint that Mrs. Rice will stay with the Obama administration, saying she is confident Mrs. Rice "will continue to represent the United States with strength and skill."
Some congressional Democrats took a sharper tone about Thursday's turn of events.
Rep. Karen Bass, California Democrat and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Mrs. Rice was "extraordinarily qualified" to become secretary of state, and decried the campaign to block her nomination.
"It is unfortunate Ambassador Rice had to make this decision in the face of such unfounded and unfair character attacks," Ms. Bass said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, who was among those most critical of Mrs. Rice's role in the Benghazi aftermath, said Thursday's developments did not weaken her determination to get a full accounting of the Benghazi attack and its repercussions.
"I respect Susan Rice's decision and appreciate her commitment to public service," Ms. Ayotte said. "However, my concerns regarding the terrorist attack in Benghazi go beyond any one individual. I remain deeply troubled by the continued lack of information from the White House and the State Department. With four of our public servants murdered, it is critical that we get to the bottom of what happened."
On Sept. 16, five days after the attack, Mrs. Rice said on five Sunday talk shows that the deadly assault in Libya grew out of protests across the Arab world against the video, which Islamic militants called anti-Muslim.
"What happened in Benghazi was, in fact, initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video," she said. "Opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons, which unfortunately are readily available in post-revolutionary Libya, and it escalated into a much more violent episode."
As it became clear that the attack was premeditated, Republican lawmakers accused Mrs. Rice of being part of a campaign by the administration to mislead the public at a time when Mr. Obama's re-election hung in the balance. Some liberal commentators accused Republicans of being motivated by racism in their criticism of Mrs. Rice, who is black.
Mrs. Rice said she gave the public the best available information about the attack.
"I relied solely and squarely on the information provided to me by the intelligence community. I made clear that the information was preliminary and that our investigations would give us the definitive answers," she said Nov. 21 at the United Nations.
Mrs. Rice also has taken some more muted criticism from liberal elements as opposition to her appointment grew. Environmental groups questioned her financial ties to the company that wants to build a Canada-to-Texas pipeline, while human rights groups have expressed disappointment over some of the stands she has taken at the United Nations as ambassador.
Mrs. Rice submitted her withdrawal as an accountability review board set up by Mrs. Clinton prepares its report on the Benghazi attack, although the report is not expected to focus heavily on Mrs. Rice's role in the aftermath of the incident. Mrs. Clinton is slated testify for the first time on Benghazi on Capitol Hill next week, although State Department officials said Thursday that she would not appear until after the board report is completed.
Separately, U.S. counterterrorism officials told lawmakers Thursday that uncooperative or less-than-capable local law enforcement in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia is slowing the search for suspects in the deaths of the four Americans.
Authorities in the region have not arrested many of the suspects whom the U.S. wants to question about the attack on the American compound in Benghazi, according to two U.S. officials briefed at a private House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing Thursday, during which counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement chiefs disclosed the information to lawmakers.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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