President Barack Obama’s double-barreled choice of Susan Rice as national security adviser and Samantha Power to take Rice’s place as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations just made his foreign policy a lot more interesting. It’s also going to put some Republican members of Congress in a serious bind.
What are Republicans to do when the Lady in Red of L’Affaire Benghazi may also be the one to fulfill their dreams of a more robust U.S. policy in Syria? The combination of Rice, a forceful advocate of the U.S. intervention in Libya, and Power, the head of the administration’s Atrocities Prevention Board and author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” is likely to turn up the dial on the administration’s foreign policy humanitarian activism.
Even if this doesn't end up putting U.S. boots on the ground in Syria, Power’s confirmation hearings will showcase cognitive dissonance on both sides of the bench: Power as she bobs and weaves to avoid criticizing the administration’s relative inaction to stop the slaughter in Syria, and Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham as they hammer away at a nominee whose more robust views on intervention they doubtless have great sympathy for.
That’s a gantlet that Rice won’t have to face, as her post doesn't require confirmation. She’s Obama’s second national security adviser to benefit mightily from the position’s free pass: Her predecessor, Tom Donilon, would have faced a protracted partisan roasting for his role as Fannie Mae’s head of government affairs and lead lobbying coordinator.
Donilon deserves credit for many things, notably the administration’s pivot to Asia and laying groundwork for the upcoming tete-a-tete between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Full disclosure: I was a foreign-service officer working as a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher when Donilon was his chief of staff.) His announced departure, however, comes just after an unflattering profile at Foreign Policy that makes him out as something of a Mayberry Metternich, sharp-elbowed and controlling.
Rice herself has been described as “hard-headed and prickly.” She’s also much more of a public personality than Donilon, the classic inside operator, and has the added advantage of longer, closer ties to the president. Will that make her a more effective national security adviser?
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)