WASHINGTON – With congressional opposition softening, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice could find her name in contention as early as this week to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. It's a step that may signal greater U.S. willingness to intervene in world crises during President Barack Obama's second term.
As Obama nears a decision on who should be the country's next top diplomat, Rice has emerged as the clear front-runner on a short list of candidates that many believe has been narrowed to just her and Sen. John Kerry, despite lingering questions over her comments about the deadly Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya.
According to congressional aides and administration officials, Rice will be making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week for closed door meetings with key lawmakers whose support she will need to be confirmed. Those appearances follow her first in-depth explanation of her Benghazi remarks that Republicans seized on as evidence of the administration's mishandling of the attack that took the lives of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
A senior Senate aide said the administration was trying to measure the strength of the Republican opposition to a Rice nomination, sounding out the more moderate members of the Foreign Relations Committee such as Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is in line to become the panel's top Republican next year, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Assessing the prospects for Rice before Obama makes any announcement would avoid the embarrassment of a protracted fight with the Senate early in the president's second term.
On talk shows the weekend following the attacks, Rice relied on talking points provided by the intelligence community that described the attack as a spontaneous assault growing out of a protest of an anti-Muslim film. GOP critics say her remarks downplayed evidence of an obvious terrorist attack just weeks before the Nov. 6 election.
Republicans called her nomination doomed, leading to a vigorous defense of her by Obama in his first post-election news conference. But since then, GOP lawmakers seemed to have softened their views. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said earlier this month that would he do everything in his power to scuttle a Rice nomination, said on Sunday that he was willing to hear her out before making a decision. McCain ally Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has also eased his opposition and said he is usually deferential to presidential cabinet picks.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that the administration appreciated McCain's latest comments about Rice, but wouldn't say whether the president saw them as an opening to make the nomination. "Ambassador Rice has done an excellent job at the United Nations and is highly qualified for any number of positions," Carney said.
Several diplomats currently serving with Rice said that what she lacked in Clinton's star power, she could make up with a blunter approach that demands attention and has marked her tenure thus far at the United Nations.
Rice, who at 48 is relatively young, has played the role of "conscience of the administration" on human rights and detainee issues and would bring "a certain edge" to the secretary of state job, according one colleague who has dealt with Rice on multiple issues over the past three years.
She "will not be going into the job as a star," said Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. ambassador and senior State Department official who worked closely with Rice in President Bill Clinton's administration when she worked as a staff aide to the National Security Council and then as assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "She will be a rising star, though."
"Hillary Clinton understood the politics of diplomacy: what the person across the table needs in order to sell something," said Inderfurth, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. "Susan Rice's background is different. What she'll bring is her experience in multilateral engagement and the limitations thereof."
"But the most important thing she brings to the table is her relationship with the president," Inderfurth said.
Rice, like many other foreign policy experts of her generation, was shaped by the Clinton administration's inability to prevent the genocide of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda 1994. Years later, she told a journalist: "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."
That doesn't mean the U.S. will change its policy of only providing humanitarian support to Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the regime anytime soon. But Rice's confirmation as the next secretary of state could alter the balance in an administration that has viewed humanitarian interventions with significant skepticism, given its rejection of the Bush administration's war in Iraq.
An early supporter of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, Rice fell out with some of her Clinton administration-era NSC and State Department colleagues who urged her to support Hillary Clinton's competing candidacy, including her own mentor, Madeleine Albright, and some of her top aides.
With the Clinton-Obama primary battle in full gear in April 2008, tension between the two camps was on public display at a ceremony and reception to unveil Albright's official portrait in the State Department's ornate 8th floor Benjamin Franklin room, according to several people present. At those events, Rice firmly brushed aside appeals that she switch allegiance, those present said.
Obama's 2008 election brought with it the prospect that Rice, one of his campaign's top foreign policy advisers, might be in line for the Cabinet job she is known to covet. Instead, however, Obama went with the surprise choice of Clinton and gave Rice the U.N. portfolio, although he attempted to deflect her disappointment by restoring the job to a cabinet level position.
But her sights remained set on the top job, according to people who know her.
Since arriving in New York, Rice can point to a series of diplomatic achievements — most notably the NATO-led air campaign that toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.
But Rice has also been criticized — along with other Security Council leaders — for the failure of the U.N.'s most powerful body to take action to end the 19-month civil war in Syria.
She has also been criticized, especially by human rights groups, for being too protective of U.S. allies, namely Sri Lanka where the U.N. says up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the country's civil war that ended in May 2009, and Rwanda, which has been accused of backing the M23 rebel group that last week took control of the eastern Congo city of Goma.
As U.N. ambassador, she has gained a reputation for a sharp intellect and sharp elbows. She is not known for diplomatic finesse, rather for being aggressive — sometimes too aggressive — and using salty language on occasion. In private, she has a good sense of humor.
In a legendary exchange last December, Rice dismissed an appeal by Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who also isn't afraid to speak out, for a Security Council investigation of civilian deaths in Libya from NATO's bombing campaign as "a cheap stunt" to distract attention from the Syrian conflict.
"Oh, the bombast and bogus claims," she told reporters.
Churkin responded by mocking Rice's Stanford University degree, saying: "We hear that the Obama administration wants to establish a dialogue with the international community in the United Nations... If this is the intention, really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian."