Bebeto Matthews/AP
US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice listens during a news conference at the UN in June. Republican opposition to Ms. Rice's possible nomination to be secretary of State began to crack Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, as Sen. John McCain said she was 'not the problem' in the White House's explanation about the Sept. 11 attack in Libya.

Susan Rice: why GOP opposition to her is no longer white-hot

Key GOP voices including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have tempered their rhetoric about Ambassador Susan Rice, who could be nominated as a possible secretary of State.

It’s looking more likely that if President Obama wants Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, as his next secretary of State, he’ll get his wish.

Key Republicans are softening their opposition to any promotion of Ambassador Rice. Notably, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has replaced his outright opposition with a willingness now to hear her case, should she be nominated.

The less strident tone from Senator McCain and other Republicans over the weekend suggests that the hyperpartisan atmosphere that prevailed in the election campaign and in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Obama’s reelection may be ceding to a more bipartisan approach to foreign policy – and to the general rule that, barring any egregious disqualifiers, the president should get the foreign-policy and national-security team he wants.

Opposition to Rice flared up over her depiction of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the US ambassador to Libya. Working from a set of talking points provided by the Central Intelligence Agency when she appeared on Sunday news shows Sept. 16, Rice described the attack as a “spontaneous” act that grew out of a copycat reaction to widespread demonstrations against an anti-Islam video.

Prominent Republican senators including McCain and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina vowed to oppose Rice’s nomination to any higher office, while a group of 97 House Republicans took the unusual step of sending a letter to Obama saying they opposed Rice’s possible nomination for secretary of State – even though the House has no role in approving presidential nominations.

A heated debate ensued that included charges from Democrats of Republican sexism and racism (Rice being an African-American woman). By the weekend, key Republican voices tempered their rhetoric.

McCain said on “Fox News Sunday” that he’d “be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with” Rice, while Senator Graham said on ABC’s “This Week” that he blames the president more than Rice for the administration’s depiction of the Benghazi attack and its reluctance to call it a terrorist attack.

Still, Graham said that if Obama does nominate Rice, “there will be a lot of questions asked of her about this event and others.” Also, he vowed to pursue an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack.

Over on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” House Republican Peter King of New York lauded Rice’s work at the UN, particularly on North Korea. But as for the argument that Rice was speaking from vetted intelligence talking points when she went on national television five days after the attack, Representative King said that as a senior administration official, “she has an obligation not to just be a puppet and take what’s handed to her.”

Obama has not nominated Rice, nor has he said whom he plans to name to replace Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has said she plans to step down once her successor is in place. But speculation has centered on Rice and Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. Recently, some White House officials have hinted that the president might prefer Rice at State and could name Senator Kerry as Defense secretary if, as anticipated, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta steps down next year.

The shift in the GOP stance on Rice appears to reflect a number of developments, including the Democratic charges of racism and sexism – which come as the Republicans assess their weak showing with women and minorities in general in the November elections. The changed tone also follows recent testimony from former CIA director David Petraeus, who told senators that Rice’s talking points – and the failure to call Benghazi a terrorist attack – reflected a desire among intelligence officials not to tip off terrorist groups in eastern Libya that the United States was aware of their involvement. 

Perhaps more important are the opinions of respected foreign-policy analysts, a number of whom have said that Rice has served ably at the UN and should not be judged on an event that she did not set policy for.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote in The Washington Post Nov. 18 that Republicans concerned about Benghazi should focus not on Rice’s television performance but on the administration’s preparedness for the safety of diplomats in dangerous places. He also said that, were Obama to nominate either Rice or Kerry, “the Senate should vote to confirm.”

As for King saying that senior administration officials “have an obligation not to just be a puppet” for the president: A variety of media outlets, including National Review and USA Today, have made a comparison with the Bush administration sending Colin Powell, then secretary of State, to the UN to justify a US war on Iraq.

Before the world’s television cameras, Mr. Powell presented “evidence” of Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. The evidence, as it turned out, was false.

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