WASHINGTON: 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 shake-up 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 policymaking, 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.