Rice, Power, and Hope

Did Obama just change Washington from the inside?

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Five years ago when Barack Obama ran for president he promised the country a foreign policy that would "change the mindset" that launched the Iraq War.

Five years later, we might just finally be getting it.

With the announcement yesterday that he is selecting Susan Rice to be his national security advisor and is nominating Samantha Power to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (a decision that comes on the heels of the selection of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Kerry as secretary of state), not only is the president putting a more personal stamp on his national security team, but he appears ready to become the foreign policy president that his 2008 campaign initially promised.

It’s been a rocky path to this point. Obama’s first-term foreign policy — and in particular the team he selected to manage it — didn’t look much like what candidate Obama had discussed on the campaign trail. Although Obama had long pledged to devote more resources to the war in Afghanistan, the policy he settled upon was more reminiscent of the "dumb" wars he bemoaned in 2002, during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Liberals hoping for a change from the Bush years got a poorly devised and unrealistic counterinsurgency strategy based on flawed assumptions and championed by the same people who had enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq. Obama ramped up the drone war (as he had promised he would during the campaign), but he was far less solicitous of congressional and constitutional prerogatives or as transparent about his counterterrorism strategy as he had led his supporters to believe he would be.

His foreign policy team didn’t suggest great change either. Obama had run for the Democratic nomination by challenging Hillary Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq but then gave her the top job at Foggy Bottom. He continued the depressing Democratic practice of giving top national security positions to Republicans or members of the military by keeping Bob Gates at the Pentagon and making Marine Gen. Jim Jones his national security advisor — a pick that seemed to be driven more by the stars on Jones’s shoulders than the strategic ideas in his head. While there were significant and important advances in Obama’s first term (the New START treaty, the Russian reset, a successful counterterrorism effort, withdrawal from Iraq), it was hard to discern a significant break from the foreign policies of the past. If anything, Obama’s first-term foreign policy appeared both defensive and overly political.

While it’s far too early to say that Obama’s personnel moves augur noteworthy change, the signs so far are surprisingly hopeful — even if many of the names are familiar.

What unites Rice, Power, Hagel, and Kerry is first and foremost their connection to the president. Both Rice and Power took a leap of faith in jumping aboard the upstart Illinois senator’s presidential campaign in 2007, when few thought he had a chance of upending Clinton. They’ve been with him as long as any of his other foreign policy aides.

The relationship between Obama and Hagel goes back to their days in the Senate, and Kerry was integral to his political rise — he asked Obama to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, at which Kerry was nominated for president. There is also John Brennan, who recently became CIA director, and was one of Obama’s closest national security advisors during his first term.

Beyond those personal links, there are important policy connections as well — none more significant than Iraq. Hagel and Kerry both voted in support of the war while serving in the Senate, and they share political scars from that decision. Hagel turned against the war and his party’s president, which made him persona non grata in the GOP (a fact on clear display during his contentious confirmation hearing earlier this year). Kerry’s support for the war ironically helped him win the Democratic primary in 2004, but his inability to stake out a clear position for it or against it — until the general election campaign — became, in part, his political undoing. Rice and Power were both critics of the war, and Rice has said she saw in Obama’s stance on Iraq a kindred soul who stood against the tide of the Democratic foreign policy elite (even though her own opposition was decidedly opaque).

What is perhaps most important is that all four have shown not just skepticism, but also nuanced thinking about the use of U.S. military force. The elevation of Rice and Power has led many to conclude that liberal interventionists now have greater influence within the White House. But the truth is far murkier. Rice, who was President Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Rwandan genocide has said she is haunted by the experience. And she was one of the key proponents of intervention in Libya. But, along with Power (and the president), she has been deeply skeptical about the efficacy of intervention in Syria. Power, who wrote a Pulitzer-winning book calling for greater response to genocide, has been dubbed the "the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world." But her focus on preventing human rights atrocities has not equaled a call for military interventions in response. In 2003, for example, she bristled at just such suggestions, noting that ”if you think of foreign policy as a toolbox, there are a whole range of options — you can convene allies, impose economic sanctions, expel ambassadors, jam hate radio,” she said. ”There is always something you can do."

Kerry’s contrarian views on the use of force of course date back to the Vietnam era, but even when voting in support of the use of force against Iraq in 2002, he did so with pronounced reservations and the argument that a yes vote from the Senate would further the larger goal of disarming Saddam Hussein. Hagel expressed similar concerns at the time. Since then, he has been a regular skeptic on the use of force and a critic of what he calls the "bloated" Pentagon budget.

In short, neither Obama nor the team he’s assembled can be so easily buttonholed as realists or liberal interventionists or neo-cons. As Heather Hurlburt, head of the National Security Network (full disclosure: I serve on NSN’s board) said to me, "They are all reality-based thinkers." In this regard, all four bear striking similarities to their boss, who used his Nobel Peace Prize as an opportunity to talk about the necessity of war.

A candidate who ran for president on a promise that he would not conform to "Washington groupthink" is truer to his word than one might initially realize. Second-term Obama seems disinclined to groupthink either of the Washington or non-Washington variety.

His recent speech at the National Defense University followed just such a pattern — a professorial, introspective examination of the cross-cutting moral, legal, diplomatic, military, and security-related challenges that underpin the country’s counterterrorism strategy. None of these issues offers easy answers, and Obama’s words were a revealing insight into the difficult choices that policymakers face when it comes to national security (not surprisingly, it was a speech that made both liberals and conservatives unhappy). For a president who has been criticized for a lack of tra
nsparency, it was perhaps the most transparent moment of his tenure as a foreign policy president.

In a sense, this was the initial promise that Obama offered in 2008 — not that he would approach national security with a singular and dogmatic worldview, but rather would do so with sophistication, nuance, and good judgment. Now he’s surrounded himself with individuals who appear think in similar terms.

This isn’t to say he will be successful or even that events won’t force decisions upon him that he would prefer not to make. But so far Obama’s second term foreign policy looks a bit more like the hopey-changey thing he promised in 2008.

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