WASHINGTON — Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is emerging as the favored candidate to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, even with the political controversy over her remarks about the fatal Sept. 11 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Six current or former White House officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Rice remains close to President Barack Obama and shares many of his views on foreign policy. They emphasized that the president hasn’t made a final decision, and Clinton may remain in her post for some months into Obama’s second term.
Former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and other officials said Obama’s first move will be choosing a successor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. He also may need to find successors to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the officials said.
Rice is thought to be the president’s preferred choice over two other strong candidates, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, according to the current and former administration officials.
Rice, who also worked on the presidential campaigns of Kerry and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, is known for her strong personality and passionate defense of Obama’s foreign policy at Security Council and inter-agency meetings.
She was an advocate of U.S. aid to Libyan rebels who rose up against then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and her supporters say she helped win U.N. Security Council support for a resolution authorizing international intervention in Libya.
Her push for intervention, officials said, might in part have been a product of the failure of former President Bill Clinton’s administration to intervene to halt genocide in the central African nation of Rwanda, when Rice was 30 and serving on the National Security Council staff.
Visiting Rwanda last year with her family after a surprise visit to Libya, she said, “Many of us heard strong echoes of 1994 when Moammar Gadhafi promised that he would root out the people of Benghazi.”
Still, she also has argued that what worked in Libya couldn’t be replicated in Syria, where her anti-interventionist line contrasted with Kerry, who looked more favorably upon the creation of humanitarian corridors.
At the U.N., her often pugnacious style has by turns been admired and derided, diplomats there say. Behind closed doors, they say, she pulls no punches and uses colorful language to get her points across.
She has clashed with Vitaly Churkin, her Russian counterpart, most pointedly over Syria. At times their exchanges got personal, such as last year when he publicly chided her for an unusual outburst and said Syria wasn’t an issue that could be drowned by expletives.
Friction notwithstanding, she also helped obtain tough 2010 U.N. resolutions aimed at derailing Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, which required protracted negotiations with Russian officials, and win U.N. membership for the new nation of South Sudan.
Still, Rice’s high profile and relationships with U.N. ambassadors from Europe, Russia and China are considered an asset, although she lacks Clinton’s experience at retail politicking and her celebrity as a presidential candidate, a senator and a two-term first lady.
While several officials said Clinton would be a difficult act to follow, many in the White House regard Rice as the most recognizable successor and a reliable advocate for Obama’s positions on Iran, Syria and other difficult issues.
A 47-year-old Stanford University graduate and former Rhodes Scholar, Rice would be the second African-American woman to serve as the top U.S. diplomat if she were nominated and confirmed by the Senate. She isn’t related to Condoleezza Rice, who served in George W. Bush’s administration.
Susan Rice, who was a National Security Council director and assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Clinton, joined the Obama campaign in 2007 and helped run the foreign policy team advising the candidate.
Two of the officials said Rice is much closer to Obama than Kerry or Donilon, so putting her at the State Department would ensure that the White House could maintain control over U.S. foreign policy.
Her Sept. 16 remarks on Sunday talk shows that the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, began as a peaceful protest that was “hijacked” by militants were considered a possible obstacle to Senate confirmation and an invitation to continued attacks on the administration’s handling of the assault.
This week’s elections relieved some — though not all — of those anxieties, said two of the officials. These officials observed that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dropped the issue during his third and final debate with Obama, and two prominent Republicans, former Secretary of State Rice and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, criticized some of the attacks on the administration over the issue.
In an email message, Wolfowitz added: “I did defend Obama officials against the charge that they knowingly abandoned Americans who were in danger, but I also said in the same article that they deserved to be criticized for ‘persistent misleading comments about the motives of the attackers.’ That was a reference not only to the comments of our U.N. ambassador but also to the secretary of State and the president himself.”
In addition, said a third administration official, the investigations that are under way into the attacks may reveal that Rice’s remarks were based on preliminary intelligence reports that were revised, and that the anti-Muslim video did play a role in inspiring the attacks.