President Barack Obama turned to two advisers who have been with him since his days as a U.S. senator to round out his second-term foreign policy team, giving him trusted loyalists who share his inclination to respond to crises through international coalitions.
The choice of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to be national security adviser and Samantha Power, a former human-rights adviser, to replace Rice at the UN returns Obama’s early inner circle to the head of his foreign affairs lineup. In his first term, he often reached outside that circle to backers of his Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, for key jobs.
“These are two of the original Obamians,” said author James Mann, whose books include “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.”
“These guys are less-wedded to the old Clintonian notion of the United States in its World War II role, that we’re the indispensable nation,” Mann said. “There’s a moderating of what America should try to do and can do in the world.”
Obama’s appointment of Rice also answers Republican critics who blocked him from nominating her as secretary of state with a filibuster threat. Now, he’s elevating her to a potentially more-influential position at the summit of the national-security apparatus. In her new post, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation, she will meet with the president daily.
Along with Rice and Power, another core member of the original Obama campaign foreign-policy team, Denis McDonough, was promoted to White House chief of staff this year. Former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, an early supporter of Obama’s presidential campaign, is now secretary of state, replacing Clinton. Chuck Hagel, the new defense secretary, broke with his Republican Party in sharing Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War.
Rice, 48, and Power, 42, are both “hard-headed liberal interventionists,” said Karl Inderfurth, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. They pressed Obama to intervene in Libya to stop atrocities that Muammar Qaddafi threatened against rebels. Even so, they are unlikely to shift thinking in the White House on intervention in Syria, Inderfurth said.
They “know that President Obama is very wary of getting America involved in new foreign interventions with American boots on the ground,” said Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state who served with Rice on President Bill Clinton’s national-security team.
Fred Hof, a veteran U.S. national-security official who’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy group, agreed. Obama is “really reluctant to use force here, even in the context of stopping war crimes,” said Hof, who was Clinton’s special representative on Syria.
Obama praised Rice as a “fierce champion for justice and human dignity” tempered by a determination “to exercise our power wisely and deliberately,” in a White House ceremony yesterday announcing her appointment. Power, his former human-rights adviser, “knows that we have to stand up for the things that we believe in,” the president said.
Tom Donilon, the current White House national-security adviser, plans to leave early next month after more than four years. Obama and Donilon have been discussing his departure since late last year, said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. Donilon was asked to stay as the president put in place a new lineup.
Rice and Power were both on Obama’s foreign-policy team when he was an insurgent primary candidate. Power has been with Obama since his first year in the Senate, when she took a leave from the Harvard faculty to serve on his staff. Rice, who had been an assistant secretary of state for Bill Clinton, broke with her patron to back Obama over Hillary Clinton.
Both have delayed personal ambition to deflect controversy from Obama. Power resigned from the presidential campaign after she was quoted calling Hillary Clinton “a monster” by a Scottish newspaper. Rice gave up her ambition to be secretary of state last year when Republican senators threatened to block the nomination over public explanations she gave for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Their appointments may underscore a recent political shift by the president to challenge congressional Republicans more directly as both sides prepare for the 2014 midterm elections.
Obama this week named three nominees to vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and essentially dared Senate Republicans to filibuster their confirmation, accusing the party of obstructionism.
Rice’s four years at the UN included supporting the revolt in Libya, a more measured response to the uprising in Syria and negotiating with Russia and China over Iran sanctions.
“Rice has sometimes shown impatience with Security Council members, including her European allies, that she believes to be posturing or pursuing wrong-headed political strategies,” said Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
She tussled with Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Over the years, Churkin faulted Rice for her “Stanford dictionary of expletives” while she publicly accused him of “bogus claims” that the U.S. sought regime change in Libya. Their duels spilled over frequently into Security Council business.
Rice was able to secure only one additional round of sanctions against Iran. And since NATO’s intervention in Libya toppled Qaddafi, a longtime client of the Soviet Union, Russia has vetoed anything that smacked of meddling in Syria, another ally and arms customer.
Rice said in a December interview that she was realistic about the challenges in the Middle East since the Arab Spring revolts.
She resists a one-size-fits-all policy on intervention. In March 2011, she sought to change Obama’s mind on the need to use military force to oust Qaddafi and helped convince colleagues on the UN Security Council, from India and Brazil to veto-wielding Russia and China, to abstain on a resolution that allowed for all necessary measures to be used to protect civilians in Libya.
Libya should have been her finest hour, yet that achievement was tarnished barely 18 months later, when she was the frontrunner to succeed Clinton as secretary of state.
Her Sunday talk show comments about the attacks in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens being the byproduct of spontaneous protests rather than an act of terrorism made her a lightning rod for Republican criticism and eventually forced her to step away from a job she had coveted.
She’s an Africa expert who wrote a thesis on minority-ruled South Africa and at the UN shepherded South Sudan’s path to independence.
Her most direct dealings with Asia have been in two rounds of negotiations to tighten sanctions on North Korea -- the first in 2009, when the late dictator Kim Jong Il was in power, and most recently in March in response to a series of nuclear provocations by Kim’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un.
“Rice has repeatedly over-hyped the scope of U.S. and UN sanctions achieved against North Korea’s repeated violations of Security Council resolutions,” said Bruce Klingner, once head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Korea desk and now an analyst at the Republican-leaning Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Both Rice-crafted resolutions, offered as evidence that the new Chinese leadership had turned away from North Korea, didn’t live up to claims that they would significantly impede North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, Klingner said.
On the Middle East, Rice mounted a campaign to stop a Palestinian effort to win nonmember observer state status in the General Assembly. Her first veto at the Security Council was against a resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
“Obviously, I disagree w/POTUS appointment of Susan Rice as Nat’l Security Adviser, but I’ll make every effort to work w/ her on imp’t issues,” Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said in a message posted on Twitter Inc.’s website, referring to the president of the U.S.
In choosing Power to replace Rice at the UN, Obama is tapping a champion of the interventionist human-rights doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect.
Power left the White House in February after four years as special assistant to the president and the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. She had advocated government efforts to halt human-rights abuses and pressed Obama for U.S. intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds. She called for limited military force in Bosnia and Rwanda, and opposed the Iraq war, partly because the U.S. didn’t make an issue of Saddam Hussein’s human-rights record.
Power won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction for her book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” which examined U.S. foreign policy toward genocide in the 20th century.
She’s a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School. She was a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where she taught courses on U.S. foreign policy, human rights and extremism, and where she was the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
She was also a columnist at Time magazine and reported from Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sudan and Zimbabwe.