WASHINGTON - Susan Rice Thursday asked President Barack Obama not to pick her as his next secretary of state, after becoming a lightning rod for Republicans over the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi.
Rice, currently US envoy to the United Nations, is a longtime member of Obama's inner circle, and had been a hot favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton as the top US diplomat in the president's second term beginning next year.
But her role as a top defender of the administration over the attack which killed the US ambassador to Libya on September 11, drew her into a furious row with Republicans keen to dent Obama after his re-election victory.
"If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly, to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities," Rice said in a letter to Obama.
"That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country... therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time," Rice wrote, in the letter seen by AFP.
Rice's decision came amid strengthening indications that Obama is making progress in naming his new national security team as sources said that ex-Republican senator Chuck Hagel could become secretary of defense.
It also signaled that the White House, locked in a showdown over taxes and spending with Republicans on Capitol Hill, concluded the political capital that would have been needed to confirm Rice could be better spent elsewhere.
In her letter to Obama, Rice decried the fact that the position of secretary of state had become politicized and an "irresponsible distraction" from the multiple serious issues facing the United States.
Obama accepted Rice's decision, first reported by NBC, in a conversation with the UN envoy on Thursday and issued a statement condemning the "unfair and misleading attacks" on her.
"Her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first," Obama said.
"The American people can be proud to have a public servant of her caliber and character representing our country," Obama added, saying that Rice would remain as UN ambassador with a place in his cabinet.
As Rice faces fierce criticism over an apparently acerbic character, as well as her past role in US diplomacy to Africa in the Clinton administration, Obama praised her as "an extraordinarily capable, patriotic, and passionate public servant."
Republicans pounced on Rice after she said on September 16 that the Benghazi attack was a "spontaneous" reaction to an anti-Muslim video, using CIA talking points she now admits were wrong.
Extremists linked to Al-Qaeda are now blamed for the attack and Republicans charge the White House misled the US public as it did not want to own up to a terror attack weeks before the presidential election.
Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee who lost out to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, was one of Rice's fiercest critics.
"Senator McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all of the facts surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans," read a statement from his office.
Senator Lindsey Graham, another of Rice's chief Republican critics said on Twitter that Obama had "many talented people to choose from to serve as our next secretary of state."
Rice's move throws the race to succeed Clinton, who has said she will not serve in Obama's second term, wide open.
Democratic Senator John Kerry will now be seen as the hot favorite for the post, though officials say no announcements on Obama's second term national security team are imminent.
Rice would have been the second African American woman to serve as secretary of state, after Condoleezza Rice, who is no relation, worked for former president George W. Bush.
As he accepted Rice's decision, Obama was considering Hagel for defense secretary.
Obama, who has been close to Hagel since they served together in the Senate, has however not made a final decision on whether to send his friend to the Pentagon to succeed Leon Panetta, an administration source said.
A White House official separately also said that no nominations to Obama's cabinet were expected this week, following a report by Bloomberg News that Hagel was the "likely" nominee and had passed a vetting process.
A decision by Obama to pick a Republican to lead the Pentagon would be seen as an attempt to show bipartisanship, although Hagel is seen as a centrist on foreign policy who has broken with his party on several key issues.
The president must also find a new head of the CIA, after the former director, retired general David Petraeus, resigned after admitting to an extra-marital affair.
Hagel, a decorated combat veteran who branded then president George W. Bush's Iraq troop surge strategy the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, served two terms as a Nebraska senator before leaving in 2009.
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