An interventionist second term? Hardly.
The predominant media theme in coverage of President Barack Obama’s appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to the jobs of national security advisor and U.N. ambassador, respectively, has been whether it constitutes the rise of interventionists in the president’s second term. It does not. Rice is no interventionist. While she was the National Security ...
The predominant media theme in coverage of President Barack Obama's appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to the jobs of national security advisor and U.N. ambassador, respectively, has been whether it constitutes the rise of interventionists in the president's second term. It does not.
The predominant media theme in coverage of President Barack Obama’s appointments of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to the jobs of national security advisor and U.N. ambassador, respectively, has been whether it constitutes the rise of interventionists in the president’s second term. It does not.
Rice is no interventionist. While she was the National Security Council’s senior director for Africa, she refused to allow anyone in Bill Clinton’s administration to describe the genocide in Rwanda as genocide, because then they would have to do something about it. She even brought the politics of electioneering into the policy debates, posing the question in an interagency meeting, "If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?" Obama has been criticized for politicizing national security policy, and as both the Rwanda and Benghazi examples demonstrate, Rice seems to have the same instincts. The "Rice as interventionist" case hinges on her learning from Rwanda and determining "never again." Her support for the Libya intervention bolsters the case, but her opposition to intervention in Syria undermines it.
When Congress was fuming about Rice’s misleading account of the Benghazi attacks, Obama defended her, saying if his critics "want to go after somebody, they should go after me." He’s exactly right: Rice is not to blame for the politicization of Benghazi. The president is to blame for that. But it is unlikely to burnish this White House’s credibility that he has selected as national security advisor someone associated — fairly or unfairly — with government dishonesty.
There are three basic models for the role of national security advisor: traffic cop, policy formulator, and presidential confidant. The traffic cop model considers the National Security Council (NSC) arbitrator of the process of policy formulation and execution. It tends to have distributed centers of power with strong cabinet secretaries, a policymaking process that gives primacy to the airing of differences and building of consensus. Brent Scowcroft is considered the apogee of this approach.
Rice is often described as "sharp-elbowed." This is the female equivalent of describing Denis McDonough as "hard-charging." In both cases, what it means is: intolerant of views that conflict with the president’s preferences, unable to achieve the president’s objectives without roiling the waters and alienating participants in the process. The same was true of Tom Donilon, who did more than anyone else to create and sustain the civil-military friction we are now experiencing. Those attributes are incompatible with the traffic cop model.
The policy formulator model is "grand strategist," à la Henry Kissinger: the person so adroit and powerful s/he marginalizes the departments and orchestrates policy from within the White House. This approach does suit the centralizing tendencies of the Obama White House, but Rice is an unlikely candidate to pull this off. She has no expertise in defense issues, the budget, or trade policy; she is distrusted by many in the bureaucracy; and no one would put her in the top 30 percent of national security thinkers.
The confidant model has the national security advisor privately assessing the input of cabinet members and shaping the president’s judgment — Condoleezza Rice most often associated with it. It requires the cabinet to be in such close sync with the president that enforcement is unnecessary, and Obama probably has that with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. But the model is not often assessed as successful in coordinating and deconflicting the efforts of the sprawling U.S. government, and it has proved incapable of orchestrating the "whole-of-government operations" that the Obama administration puts at the center of its soft-power approach to national security.
The confidant model is the only one of these that Rice is well suited to. The president clearly trusts her and confides in her, so she will have the advantage over cabinet members of knowing what the president actually thinks. The operating style of the National Security Council under Donilon was to hold meetings at which the president would hear the views of his cabinet and then retreat with Donilon and McDonough (then deputy national security advisor) to make decisions. Rice is likely to be a continuation of Donilon’s interagency management, because that’s what she’s suited to and what the president wants.
Samantha Power, by contrast, is a brilliant choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She’s an expert on the institution and an advocate for its effective utilization. She’s had a diverse career as a journalist, NGO activist, and college professor. She has written movingly about the moral costs of inaction and the importance of human rights and human dignity in U.S. foreign policy. She can make common cause with neoconservatives as few Democrats — and even fewer in the Obama administration — can. And she can call the president of the United States on the telephone. She’s a one-woman refutation of the argument by career diplomats that political appointees are a disservice to U.S. foreign policy. But Power will likely have less influence on administration policy in New York than she did on the NSC. As with most ambassadors, the majority of her effort will be implementing policy devised in Washington.
The appointments won’t create a more interventionist administration because the president isn’t an interventionist; they will instead continue the centralization of national security policymaking in the White House.
Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake
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