Much Ado about Power and Rice

President Barack Obama, second from left, walks with with United Nations Ambassdor Susan Rice, third from left, his choice to be his next National Security Adviser, current National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, left, and Samantha Power, his nominee to be the next United Nations Ambassador, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, in Washington. ()
Donilon, Obama, Rice and Power walk in the Rose Garden of the White House, yesterday.
Evan Vucci

If there were such a thing as a foreign policy earthquake, the magnitude of yesterday’s White House reshuffle would have measured quite high.

Twitter, blogs and media were abuzz with the news that the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice would take over as National Security Advisor and former journalist Samantha Power is to occupy Rice’s former seat at the UN.

You may remember Rice as the potential candidate for Secretary of State who’s comments following the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi became an attack point for Congressional Republicans and led to her withdrawal from consideration.

Power comes with her own baggage. The former journalist and academic was a strong critic of the lack of action by the United States during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She is a strong advocate for the US taking an active role in genocide prevention and joined Rice in advocating for the US-led intervention into Libya in 2011.

Rice and Power represent a multitude of things to the humanitarian world. For some, Rice is a strong Africanist that will bring the continent to the forefront. Others will point to her failure on Rwanda and subsequent close relationship with President Kagame as problematic. Power is polarizing in her bend towards interventions. Supporters see her  as a strong voice on atrocity prevention and a ‘nod for the development community‘ while critics point at her neo-conservative tendency to elevate military action above diplomacy.

UN watcher and blogger Mark Goldberg says that Power may be a game changer for how things go in Syria and Mali. The new UN mission in Mali will face jihadi groups for the first time. “Having a US Ambassador to the UN who consistently pushes for measures to decrease that threat could significantly boost the chances that the Mali mission might succeed; and could be game changing for the UN’s operations in much of the world,” writes Goldberg. On Syria, Power may turn to support the implementation of a no-fly zone. Facing certain defeat in the Security Council at the hands of Russia, Goldberg says Power will have to pursue alternative means to end the fighting in Syria.

Meanwhile, some are concerned about Power taking on a political position. The independent actor that worked with the Obama campaign and administration as a foreign policy adviser will now step into a decidedly public and political role at the UN. Her lack of experience is worrying to some who cited her incident in calling candidate Hilary Clinton ‘a monster’ while working on the Obama campaign in 2008.

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She will faced a mixed confirmation hearing. Colum Lynch took a look at early reactions and Power’s record to show that she will face some resistance. Previous comments about the UN and the role of the US in global politics will provide plenty of ammo for those who want to shoot down her nomination. Her comments about intervening in Israel in a 2002 thought experiment will surely rankle some members of Congress.

However, she already has early praise from the likes of John McCain. Former Senator Joe Lieberman told Foreign Policy that he is happy with the decision.

“Generally speaking from her writings, Samantha is probably more personally interventionist as a matter of American foreign policy based on human rights than this administration has been,” he said. “I’m very encouraged by the president’s appointment.”

Unlike last time around, Susan Rice will avoid a confirmation process. The role of National Security Advisor is a political appointment by the President and does not require Congress to give the thumbs up. That is good news for Rice and the Obama Administration after the failed attempt to name her Secretary of State. The decision was still met with opposition.

“In one of the most arrogant downright reckless decisions of his entire presidency, Barack Obama has selected his ambassador to the U.N. as his next national security adviser,” said Fox News host Sean Hannity on his television show yesterday.

K.T. McFarland says that Rice will be an utter failure in her new role. She argues that Rice has no political chops nor credibility due to her remarks about Benghazi. It is an idea that a column by John Dickerson dismisses. Rice was not involved in the intelligence following the attacks and her comments reflected what she was told as well as a willingness by the administration to allow someone like her speak about the events in public. However, her new role will put her in touch with information related to national security.

Fred Kaplan sees Rice as a far more important figure in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy team. He puts her as essentially the number two to the President.

Ultimately, though, President Obama is his own national-security adviser. He has appointed Susan Rice to fill the formal slot because—as he said when he was considering her to be secretary of state—she reflects his views on foreign policy to a T.

John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, praised the decision to tap Rice and Power for the roles. His advocacy organization has long aligned itself with the policies of Power and Rice.

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“Anyone who has worked with either or both of these public servants would agree that they possess strong ethical standards and work from a set of well-developed principles that guides their actions. Issues and crises will come and go, but having a deep well of character from which to draw is crucial in the roles they are assuming,” writes Prendergast in Politco.

While the simple explanations of both Rice and Power will take further hold, Max Fisher says the reality is that their positions are far more complicated. In the end the ultimate impact will be minimal. Promoting Rice and Power will not lead to a significant shift in the Obama Administration’s policies. It is a point that James Fallows also makes.

“To overgeneralize, in foreign policy I consider Susan Rice and Samantha Power to be “liberal interventionists.” What is American power for, if it is not to do good in the world?” explains James Fallows in the Atlantic.

He goes on to contrast that with President Obama who has taken a largely non-interventionist stance in office. The appointments is a signal of Obama’s willingness to have views that opposes his own in his national security team, but does not signal a shift on the part of the president, argues Fallows.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.