WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama's top U.N. diplomat appears to have a clearer path to succeeding retiring Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton after two top Republican critics moderated their accusations that Ambassador Susan Rice was part of a government cover-up of what happened in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.
Rice has emerged as a clear front-runner to replace Clinton during Obama's second four-year term. If she is nominated for the position, it may signal greater U.S. willingness to intervene in world crises during Obama's second term.
The political furor over the Benghazi assault that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans exploded before the Nov. 6 presidential election and continued for weeks afterward, with Rice becoming the focus of Republican attacks.
Now, while refusing to back away from charges of a cover-up, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have toned down their complaints, suggesting Republicans may not block Rice's appointment if Obama chooses to nominate her.
Still, the political conflict over a foreign policy issue was a sign of the severe polarization gripping the United States. It could portend difficulties for Obama as he seeks required Senate approval for nominations as he revamps his administration at the start of a second four-year term.
During the presidential campaign, Republicans lambasted Obama's handling of the attack in an attempt to cast doubt on his image as a successful steward of U.S. security and foreign policy. That image was enhanced after Obama ordered the risky attack in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.
Challenger Mitt Romney and other Republicans accused the Obama administration of reacting to the consulate assault too slowly, and questioned if it was providing sufficient security for dangerous diplomatic missions.
After Obama's decisive victory, McCain and Graham continued to hammer Obama over how his administration over Libya, especially over how it informed Americans about the nature of the attack.
The senators focused on comments Rice made on Sunday talk shows a few days after the attack, blaming the violence on a mob enraged by an anti-Muslim video produced in the U.S. and posted on YouTube. The Benghazi attack coincided with other riots at U.S. diplomatic facilities across the Muslim world in response to the religiously insulting film. It later became clear, though, that the attack was carried out by a Libyan militia associated with al-Qaida.
Obama and Rice have insisted the explanation she gave was a result of a report provided by American intelligence agencies.
But McCain, who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 presidential election, threatened to prevent Rice's Senate confirmation should Obama nominate her as secretary of state.
"Susan Rice should have known better, and if she didn't know better, she's not qualified," said McCain, a hawk on military issues and a former Vietnam prisoner of war. "I will do everything in my power to block her from being the United States secretary of state."
He was joined by his friend Graham.
"This is about the role she played around four dead Americans, when it seems to be that the story coming out of the administration - and she's the point person - is so disconnected to reality I don't trust her," said Graham. "And the reason I don't trust her is because I think she knew better, and if she didn't know better she shouldn't be the voice of America."
Obama fired back in his first post-election news conference, calling the campaign against Rice by McCain "outrageous."
Since then, Rice has publically defended her role, insisting again that she did nothing to mislead anyone about the nature of the attacks and had noted that the information was preliminary and could change after a more thorough investigation.
Now, both McCain and Graham have softened their positions, telling television interviewers Sunday that they would entertain a Rice nomination.
McCain said, "Sure," when asked by CBS television if he might change his mind on a Rice nomination.
"I'd give everyone the benefit of explaining their position and the actions that they took. I'd be glad to have the opportunity to discuss these issues with her."
Graham likewise altered his position slightly, saying Sunday: "I blame the president above all others" for the confusion over Benghazi. "When (Rice) comes over (as the nominee), if she does, there will be a lot of questions asked of her about this event and others."
Rice is scheduled to meet Tuesday with McCain in Washington.
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."
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.
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.