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Susan Rice, a risky replacement for Clinton?

With Hillary Clinton likely to step down as secretary of state, speculation about her successor is at an all-time high. looks at two frontrunners: Senator John Kerry and the more controversial ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice.


With Hillary Clinton switching gears from strategic relationship-building in Asia to damage control in the Middle East within 24 hours, speculation about who will take over for the popular US Secretary of State when she steps down in the coming months has reached a fever pitch.

The two figures seen as frontrunners on what is said to be a very short list are Susan Rice, Obama’s sharp-tongued, poker-faced ambassador to the UN, and John Kerry, the seasoned senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.

Senator John Kerry

Peter Mandaville, a political analyst and professor at George Mason University who has recently served as a policy advisor to the State Department, summarised Obama’s choice: “Rice is a tough implementer who likes to dive right in, grab the contentious issues, and play hardball. Kerry has diplomatic gravitas, a rich portfolio of established relationships, and a bit more levity in his approach, but he might have aides do some of the messy work on his behalf,” Mandaville said.

Another main difference, Mandaville noted, is the fact that one of the two is a familiar leader, while the other is not. “We’ve seen Kerry throughout the years in various leadership roles, so we know what he’d be like,” the political scientist said. “With Rice, it’s hard to say exactly how she would operate.”

Rice is said to be Obama’s top pick (the president could offer Kerry the secretary of defence position as consolation, whispers from the White House suggest). But one potentially decisive obstacle to her appointment has emerged: her role in the administration’s much-criticised response to the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

Rice elicits gripes, public and private

High-profile Republican senators like John McCain have slammed Rice for her initial assertion on TV news shows that the incident may have been a spontaneous protest rather than terrorism (as the White House subsequently labelled it). “I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States Secretary of State,” McCain said on Fox News, alluding menacingly to the confirmation hearings the Senate holds for all presidential cabinet nominees. “She has proven that she either doesn’t understand or she is not willing to accept evidence on its face.”

McCain’s colleague Lindsey Graham echoed the allegation. “I’m not entertaining promoting anybody that I think was involved with the Benghazi debacle,” Graham said on CBS. “Susan Rice needs to be held accountable.”

The Obama administration has argued that Rice should not, in fact, be held accountable, since she was reading on-air from a briefing written by US intelligence agencies.

The president mounted a full-throated defence of Rice during his first press conference since re-election, bolstering theories that she is indeed in line for the post. “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me,” Obama said testily. “For them to go after the UN ambassador, who had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply making a presentation based on intelligence that she had received, and to besmirch her reputation, is outrageous.”

Many politicians and pundits have played down the notion that Rice, a reputedly thorough and independent-minded navigator of thorny foreign policy matters, messed up by following a faulty script on live TV. “There were various sources of information flying around when she spoke,” Mandaville noted. “She was probably going with what she thought was the safest line of analysis.”

Still, Mandaville said, Obama would be wise not to brush off admonitions by Republican leaders he might need later. “Obama will have to give a serious ear to the kinds of positions advanced by McCain and Graham,” Mandaville noted. “Those are two Republicans who have been helpful to the administration in calming other conservatives that are more strident on issues pertaining to the Middle East, for example.”

There are also far less influential voices of opposition to Rice. “A lot of people within the Washington DC foreign policy apparatus hate her,” said a former State Department official who wished to remain anonymous. “They think she’s overly demanding, strident, and undiplomatic in how she engages with staff under her. Right now they’re saying: ‘Oh God, I hope it’s not her!’”

Kerry, the safer choice

According to Mandaville, the 68-year-old Kerry would be “the preference of many working in the trenches of the US foreign policy establishment”.

“He’s seen as a towering figure, and his personal style is much better suited to secretary of state than it was to presidential contender,” Mandaville said.

Kerry also offers the promise of a drama-free confirmation process. Though he has frequently clashed with Republican colleagues over policy, his experience in foreign affairs is undisputed on both sides of the aisle, making him a shoo-in for approval by fellow senators.

Obama’s preference is another story. Though the president rarely socialises within political spheres, Rice, who served as an advisor during the 2008 campaign, is closer to him than most of the administration heavyweights (she recently brought her husband to dinner with the first couple).

The 48-year-old also comes with a first-rate pedigree: diplomas from Stanford and Oxford, wide-ranging diplomatic credentials (she previously served on former president Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, and then as one of his advisors on African affairs), and a generally praised UN tenure (she is said to have been key in securing tougher sanctions on Iran and North Korea).

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton

Kerry, for his part, is one of Obama’s more valued allies in the party – he has been solicited for debate preparation, as well as counsel on Afghanistan and Russia – but remains just outside the president’s inner circle.

Another name that has been floated as a potential successor to Clinton is current national security advisor Thomas Donilon. But analysts see Donilon as a distant third in what may essentially turn out to be a two-horse race.

If Obama opts for continuity, Mandaville said, Rice could be the logical pick – despite the fact that she is a lesser known quantity than Kerry. “Rice would likely play the same kind of generalist role as Clinton, roaming across a full range of issues. Kerry would probably focus on specific interests or regions,” he reflected, before concluding: “Of course, either one will have very big shoes to fill.”

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