Letter from America

President Barack Obama has defended the honour of his United Nations (UN) ambassador, Susan Rice, with what New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls "virile flare".

Will he now nominate her as his secretary of state when Hillary Clinton steps down?

In his first post-election press conference last Wednesday, Mr Obama said it was "outrageous" to "besmirch (Ms Rice’s) reputation" by suggesting she deliberately misled voters about the September 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans, including the ambassador, dead.

Ms Rice delivered the administration’s talking points on the TV talk show circuit the Sunday after the attack. The script had her say that the attack at that stage appeared primarily to have been a spontaneous reaction to the US refusal to suppress a movie offensive to Muslims.

This, it is now clear, did not fully reflect what the White House was hearing either from its intelligence services or from the Libyan authorities, both of whom had concluded the attack was planned by al-Qaeda affiliates.

The CIA director at the time, Gen David Petraeus, whose resignation Mr Obama has since accepted after it emerged he had been sleeping with his biographer, told Congress on Friday the agency had included references to al-Qaeda in its version of the script but someone had edited them out.

Ms Rice’s critics, the loudest of whom are Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, seemingly want to believe that she was complicit in an election season cover-up to protect the claim that Mr Obama’s leadership was rendering al-Qaeda a negligible threat.

Her supporters, including most vociferously the president himself, contend she was simply delivering mail for her boss after Ms Clinton begged off, saying she was too drained from the events of the week to do the job herself.

Ms Rice, they say, was not involved in the drafting of the talking points and if mentions of al-Qaeda were excised, the motive was to protect intelligence sources. not to deceive.

Wherever the truth lies, the thought of Ms Rice replacing Ms Clinton is stirring passions, pro and con, both in Washington and further afield.

Her principal rival is said to be senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, but unnamed White House officials are putting it about that Ms Rice is the frontrunner.

The contest is being waged, naturally, in the media, and there, at least, Ms Rice seems to be losing ground.

As people with strong personalities and unconcealed ambition are wont to do, she has made plenty of anonymously talkative enemies since coming to Washington to work in Bill Clinton’s White House and later as his assistant secretary of state for Africa.

The New York Times’ Ms Dowd and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank both batted for the opposition in Sunday’s papers.

"Is Rice Cooked?" the headline on Ms Dowd’s column asks hopefully. Very much so, thinks Ms Milbank. "There likely aren’t enough Republican or Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm her."

Ms Rice was on the White House National Security Council at the time of the Rwandan genocide. Ms Dowd reaches for a parallel between Ms Rice’s actions then and now.

Then, says the columnist, she argued for playing down the scale of the Rwandan killing lest the Clinton administration’s reluctance to get involved undermine Democrats’ prospects in the 1994 midterm elections.

Now, she was for playing down what she must have known was likely al-Qaeda involvement in the Benghazi attack lest it be grist for Mitt Romney.

Ms Milbank writes of Ms Rice "she can be a most undiplomatic diplomat", a view shared by the anonymous Russian official quoted in the Moscow business daily Kommersant calling her "too ambitious and aggressive" and warning that US-Russian relations would suffer were she to get the nod.

Michael Hirsh, writing in the respected National Journal, argues Benghazi "may be the least of (Ms Rice’s) problems."

He expects questions to be raised about her relationship with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and her reasons for wanting to delay publication of a UN report finding that his government had backed the M 23 rebel movement in eastern Congo.

On a visit to Washington for a session of the now-defunct US-SA Binational Commission, then-deputy president Thabo Mbeki was asked at a press conference to comment on reports that he and assistant secretary Rice were not hitting it off. "No," he replied, "I admire her somewhat."

• Simon Barber is US country manager for Brand South Africa.