John Kerry, Chuck Hagel: Vietnam vets to lead US foreign and defense policies?

Sen. John Kerry is the leading contender to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Former GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel could be Obama's next Defense Secretary.

REUTERS/Gary Cameron/File
Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts meets Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi (R), who is chair of Myanmar's National League for Democracy (NLD), in Washington this fall. With Susan Rice's withdrawal, Senator Kerry is the leading candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

 With U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice suddenly withdrawing from consideration for U.S. secretary of state to avoid a contentious confirmation fight with emboldened Republicans, Democratic Sen. John Kerry has vaulted to the head of President Barack Obama's short list of candidates.

The exit of Rice and elevation of Kerry — who unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 2004 and has pined for the job of top diplomat — shook up Washington on Thursday. It was coupled with the potential for even bolder second-term changes in Obama's national security team next month. Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, emerged as the front-runner to serve as defense secretary.

The possible selection of Kerry and Hagel would put two decorated Vietnam War veterans — one Navy, the other Army — at State and the Pentagon.

Official word on replacements for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to step down soon, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in an Obama Cabinet remake could come as early as next week.

Obama was scheduled to meet with Rice privately on Friday.

Democrats blamed politics for Rice's withdrawal. They insinuated that Republicans who failed to get any traction in using the deadly September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to derail Obama's re-election bid instead took her down.

"Their behavior was a disgrace to the Senate's tradition of bipartisan cooperation on national security issues and beneath the stature of senators with otherwise distinguished records on national security," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a blistering statement.

Rice had been widely attacked for a series of interviews five days after the Libya attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Relying on intelligence community talking points, she attributed the cause to widespread protests throughout the Middle East over an anti-Muslim video rather than a terrorist attack by al-Qaida affiliates.

Obama was defiant in defending Rice. House Democratic women cast the attacks as sexist and racist — Rice is African-American.

In a letter to Obama, Rice said that "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. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."

Obama bemoaned the relentless Republican criticism in accepting Rice's decision to step aside.

"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character," the president said.

The White House said Rice would remain U.N. ambassador. She could become national security adviser should Tom Donilon move on to another position, though that is not expected imminently. The security adviser position would not require Senate confirmation.

Kerry, a senator for nearly three decades and the current Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, has won praise from his Senate colleagues and should be confirmed easily, if nominated. He has been Obama's envoy to hot spots such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration's point man in 2010 on a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and a stand-in for Republican Mitt Romney during Obama's debate preparation this year.

Hagel was a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee during his years in the Senate. He and Obama became close while they served in the Senate and traveled overseas together. Hagel has irked some in the Republican Party with his complaints that the party has moved too far to the right and for his endorsements of Democrats.

"He's a combat vet who was wounded twice and understands that the decisions we make here are carried out by our young men and women" in the military, said Sen. Jack Reed, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

It would be highly unusual for Hagel's political moves to sink his nomination, even in bitterly divided Washington.

Kerry is no stranger to the politicization of national security; he was the target of unsubstantiated claims by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth over his Vietnam record. He acknowledged that experience in his statement Thursday praising Rice.

"As someone who has weathered my share of political attacks and understands on a personal level just how difficult politics can be, I've felt for her throughout these last difficult weeks, but I also know that she will continue to serve with great passion and distinction," he said in a statement.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Ben Feller and Julie Pace contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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