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McCain, Rice, Obama and the politics of personality

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 5:33 AM EST, Mon December 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rice withdrew her name from any consideration as secretary of state
  • Some Democrats disappointed President Obama did not more strongly support Rice
  • Politics, personal ties complicated any effort to nominate Susan Rice as secretary of state

Washington (CNN) -- Now that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration for secretary of state, her supporters are criticizing those who brought her down as well as President Barack Obama, a long-time friend, who they say left her twisting in the wind.

"I'm not just disappointed that President Obama didn't go forward (with the nomination). He accepted her resignation not to put her name forward," Donna Brazile, CNN political contributor and Democratic strategist, said on the Situation Room.

"I can understand that the president doesn't want to use all of his political capital, re-fight these battles," Brazile said. "They had the knives out for Susan, a whole bunch of people. This is an old boys' network. This is how it operates."

Susan Rice withdraws her name from consideration as secretary of state

Gergen: Rice removed Obama's agony

Rice withdrew her name from consideration to become the top U.S. diplomat on Thursday after drawing heavy criticism from Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Republicans over her public statements about the deadly attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

In a letter to Obama, she said the Senate "confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive, and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade off is simply not worth it to our country."

Last month, Obama defended Rice at a White House press conference and challenged her Republican detractors to "go after me" and calling the character attacks "outrageous." But Obama stalled for weeks on nominating Rice or anyone else, which indicated her prospects for the job were dim.

Ultimately, Rice's possible nomination was a casualty of a deeply partisan climate in an ongoing political showdown between Obama and Republicans over the handling of the Libya attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, said David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

A lucky day for Susan Rice

"The Rice incident does not represent a significant deviation from the partisan standards of the recent past in Washington," Rothkopf said. "In other words, every so often a candidate is targeted and blocked by one party or the other. It happens more often (with) the Supreme Court than with Cabinet posts or ambassadorships. But it happens."

Rice became the administration's point person on explaining events in Benghazi. In multiple TV appearances just days after the attack, Rice said the violence apparently was linked to a protest over an anti-Muslim film produced in the United States.

Senior U.S. officials have said Rice's comments were based on an intelligence assessment that was later revised to reflect the belief that it was a planned terrorist assault.

McCain was withering in his criticism of the administration's initial public explanation.

He said "this president and this administration has either been guilty of colossal incompetence or engaged in a cover up, neither of which are acceptable to the American people."

McCain is well known for his bluntness but Rice also has a reputation for being a aggressive and an effective operator in the corridors of power during her years in Washington.

"I guess my theory is that she's a sharp-tongued, blunt person, and, in the past, she has taken some shots at John McCain and others, and so this is their chance," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks said recently on PBS' Newshour of GOP criticism of Rice before her withdrawal.

Opinion: An unfair portrait of Susan Rice

"They have no wellspring of sympathy with her, the way they actually probably do with John Kerry, her potential rival to be the next secretary of state, having taken a bunch of delegation trips with Kerry around the world. And so, I suspect there's a lot of old history here that is bubbling up," he said.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Rice, who was then serving as the Obama campaign's senior foreign policy adviser, called McCain's proposed terrorism policies "dangerous."

Other factors in the Rice saga were at play as well, Rothkopf said.

"I think it is more complicated than that and has roots associated with a variety of other factors: the political origins of the debate over Benghazi during the campaign, McCain's dissatisfaction with answers Rice gave him in person (that deepened his concerns), his ties to and preference for other choices for the job, and so on," Rothkopf said.

Rice was reportedly defensive during her followup meetings with lawmakers aimed at addressing their concerns with her Benghazi comments. That apparent impression raised red flags with other senators on the fence about her prospects for higher office

McCain is seeking a slot on the Foreign Relations Committee next year to be in a position to help weigh in on the next secretary of state and could be in place to question Kerry, a fellow decorated Vietnam veteran, if he is nominated to the position.

McCain, who has a good relationship with Kerry, and other Republican senators have said they would prefer to see the Massachusetts Democrat and current foreign relations chairman, running American diplomacy.

Rice once appeared to be the inevitable secretary of state

CNN's Ted Barrett, Dana Bash, Ashley Killough and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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