President Barack Obama’s appointment Wednesday of two longtime loyalists to top national security positions is unlikely to result in major shifts in U.S. foreign policy, despite their records as advocates of military intervention to avert humanitarian disasters such as the one in war-torn Syria.
But the shakeup comes with significant political implications: Obama’s appointment of diplomat Susan Rice as his national security adviser to replace the outgoing Tom Donilon comes despite persistent Republican ire over Rice’s role in explaining the origins of the terrorist attack last Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya. Rice’s new position as adviser to Obama, however, doesn’t require congressional approval, and Republican reaction to her elevation largely was muted.
Obama nominated Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book on U.S. policy toward genocide and a former national security special assistant, to replace Rice as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and he hailed both of them at a ceremony in the Rose Garden.
The president called Rice a “consummate public servant, a patriot who puts her country first.” “I’m absolutely thrilled that she’ll be back at my side, leading my national security team in my second term,” he said.
He described Power as “one of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy” and urged the Senate to confirm her quickly.
Both longtime advisers to Obama – Power first came to work for him in 2005, when he was in the Senate – Rice and Power pressed forcefully for a U.S. role in the NATO air campaign that helped topple the late Moammar Gadhafi in Libya’s 2011 civil war.
But they’ve been less vocal in supporting intervention in Syria, and their views there may mesh with those of Obama, who’s limited the United States to giving nonlethal aid to the opposition and pressing a long-shot diplomatic drive for a peace accord.
Moreover, analysts said, the elevations of Rice and Power are unlikely to bring changes in other major policies. One reason is that Obama personally tangles with the details of foreign policy-making, unlike other presidents who’ve delegated the intricacies to subordinates.
“Rest assured that the president is still in charge,” said a former senior White House official who requested anonymity in order to speak about the issue.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Obama would retain the final say, though he “wants and expects” his national security team to have “strongly held views.”
“But ultimately it is the president of the United States who assesses the views of his foreign policy team when there are issues to be debated,” Carney said. “And then he makes the decision. So I would simply say that the president’s policy on Syria will be the president’s policy as it is today.”
Rice and Power also are unlikely to challenge Obama, given how closely aligned they’ve been with his views on foreign affairs since they worked to formulate his national security stands as advisers in his 2008 presidential election campaign.
“These are people he trusts and who understand how to implement his vision,” said Mark Jacobson, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a policy institute, who worked with Rice on Afghanistan while he served as the deputy NATO representative to the U.S.-led international force.
Obama noted that Rice “is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity, but she’s also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately.”
Their first test in their new positions is likely to be Syria and any adjustments the president is ready to make to U.S. policy, said former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who worked with both women.
“In Susan’s case, it is about whether some adjustments are needed. In Sam’s case, it’s about finding a way for the U.N., which has been sidelined, to play a meaningful role,” he said.
Crowley noted that neither woman is shy. “They have a reputation for being forthright,” he said. Rice, in particular, has a blunt style that’s earned her as many detractors as supporters.
Obama joked about her sharp-edged style in his remarks, saying he occasionally plays basketball with Rice’s brother, “and it runs in the family: throwing the occasional elbow, but hitting the big shot.”
While Donilon’s departure means that another of the president’s original national security team is leaving, continuity will remain in the form of Vice President Joe Biden, who’s had enormous influence on U.S. policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and other national security issues.
Moreover, Obama’s chief of staff – the most powerful of his aides – is Denis McDonough, who served until February as the deputy national security adviser, playing a leading role in formulating and implementing the president’s foreign policy.
McDonough’s place as the deputy national security adviser was taken by Antony Blinken, who’d served as Biden’s national security adviser, a position in which he also helped devise and oversee key aspects of foreign policy, including the U.S. approaches toward Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Rice has been a lightning rod for Republicans since her September appearance on Sunday morning talk shows to provide the administration’s early assessment of the attack in Libya, but her new job is likely to have a lower profile. In his remarks, Donilon noted the “many hours” he’d spent working in the White House’s windowless Situation Room and thanked Obama “for this rare opportunity to be outside and experience the natural light.”
Donilon, who’s overseen the administration’s effort to increase U.S. influence in Asia, will travel with the president to California this week for a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He’ll leave the post in early July after four years with Obama. His plans after he departs weren’t disclosed.
Rice had been Obama’s top choice to lead the State Department, though she was never formally nominated. She took her name out of consideration in December after Republicans began scrutinizing her role in explaining the attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed.
Carney dismissed concerns that Rice’s new role would further fuel criticism of the administration’s handling of Benghazi, saying Rice had “conveyed what was the intelligence communities’ best assessment of what had happened in Benghazi at the time.”
Some Republicans signaled they’d accept Rice, with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading critic of the administration’s foreign policy, tweeting "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."
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – who opposed Rice as secretary of state, calling her a "political operative" – said in a statement that he’d told Rice he looked forward to working with her “on shaping important foreign policy and national security issues.”
But Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Rice “complicit in the deception the administration perpetrated” and said he was “troubled that the president has avoided the confirmation process to promote a friend who has already been deemed unfit for service and concerned about the potential negative impact on national security.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on Congress to work with Rice.
“It is now well established that she played no role in the preparation of the unclassified talking points about the attacks in Benghazi and simply relayed the information provided to her by the intelligence community,” Feinstein said. “Ambassador Rice will face more than enough challenges around the world in her new position, and it is my hope we can focus together on those challenges.”