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Why did Obama defend and then drop Susan Rice?

Whether Susan Rice jumped or was pushed from consideration to succeed retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her removal from the equation clears one bone of partisan contention from President Barack Obama's plate as he heads into his second term.

The UN ambassador asserted that she withdrew her name to save her boss from "an enduring partisan battle" that would further distract him and the country from urgent national priorities, including job creation, deficit reduction, immigration reform and "protecting our national securitiy."

All those objectives would, of course, have gone forward whether Ms. Rice stayed in the fight or not. The lingering question was why the president, who so publicly and forcefully had called the Republican senatorial attacks on Ms. Rice "outrageous" and invited the critics to take him on, would so benignly accept her stepping aside.

It may not have been wise to put the UN ambassador forward on the Sunday television talk shows months ago to explain and defend U.S. actions and the lacking response to the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. However, she was only reiterating what administration intelligence officials provided her at the time.

Less explicable was the decision, hers or the administration's, for Ms. Rice to go out on the television firing line to defend herself in what risked appearing to be personal lobbying for the job of running the State Department. All that the effort accomplished was to give critics such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham further pretext to allege that the administration failed to acknowledge what clearly had been a terrorist attack.

All manner of counter-allegations that the opposition to Ms. Rice was driven either by sexism or racism, or both, were heard. So were suggestions that the prospective nominee had elbows and a tongue too sharp for the world of diplomacy in which she was already serving with considerable distinction at the United Nations in New York.

In any event, sending Ms. Rice back there is said to clear the path for the appointment of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the next secretary of state. Why he would want to give up one of the most desirable independent and influential posts on Capitol Hill to take on the demands of running a sprawling executive-branch bureaucracy only Mr. Kerry can explain.

There is little doubt, though, that he is eminently qualified for the job in both experience and temperament, and would be easily confirmed by his fellow senators on both sides of the aisle. Fearful Democratic partisans can argue that recently defeated Republican Sen. Scott Brown would pounce on the vacated Senate seat, but Massachusetts being what it is, electing another Democrat would seem to be well within the realm of probability.

Mr. Kerry, in addition to his extensive foreign travels as Senate Foreign Relations Committee member and chairman, has been a valuable and effective Obama administration emissary to Middle East troublespots in the first term, and has longstanding connections with leaders in Europe and around the globe.

The tall, lanky and somewhat patrician Yankee fits the old texbook image of a chief American diplomat quite different from the caricature denigratingly painted of him in his 2004 presidential campaign. Critics cast him then not only as aloof but as a sham hero in the Vietnam war, as an undeserving decorated swift boat commander who on return spoke out against the war.

Mr. Kerry essentially turned the other cheek to the unwarranted charges and lost the election to President George W. Bush, who managed to avoid combat in the same war. Turning the other cheek can be fatal in a political campaign, but it but can be an effective tactic in diplomacy, where Mr. Kerry would seem to be a perfect fit if he really wants the job change.

In any event, administration foreign policy would remain in good hands with his appointment to replace Secretary Clinton, whose generally exemplary performance in the post over the last four years has won her elevated support in her party for a second presidential bid in 2016, if she desires another crack at it.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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