Susan Rice and Samantha Power: Less Change Than Meets the Eye

Why Obama's new national security advisor and U.N. ambassador aren't as controversial as you might think.
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Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to the media at U.N. headquarters in New York on February 12, 2013. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
In appointing Susan Rice to be his new national security advisor, President Obama appears to be taking two big risks at once: openly defying Republicans who have made her the centerpiece of the Benghazi imbroglio, and embracing a new interventionist view of the world that may well get him into trouble overseas at some point, perhaps in Syria.

Such is what will you hear some pundits write. In fact, on both scores, there is far less risk here than meets the eye. And the same goes for Obama's new nominee to replace Rice as U.N. ambassador, the fiery Samantha Power, whom Tara McKelvey of The Daily Beast once described memorably as "the femme fatale of the humanitarian-assistance world."

Why? First, because the GOP has effectively no say over the Rice appointment, which doesn't require confirmation, and it has little or no ammunition with which to oppose Power, who served an uncontroversial tenure in Obama's first term as head of the National Security Council's human rights office and as chair of Obama's new Atrocities Prevention Board. With the Republicans off chasing other scandals, in particular the administration's role in allegedly deploying the IRS to pursue tea partiers, it has also largely escaped notice that Rice was largely vindicated by the White House's release of its email traffic over Benghazi a few weeks ago.

The emails effectively demonstrated that, rather than covering up intelligence, Rice was only laying out the intelligence community's own summary in TV interviews last fall when she infamously attributed the deaths of Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012 to "spontaneous" protests. The emails revealed that both the CIA and State Department had, without dispute, kept that description in their so-called "talking points," and that Rice had nothing to do with the main debate between the two agencies over how to describe the incident. According to a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the drafting of the "talking points," the edited changes were simply attempts by the two agencies to "find the appropriate level of detail for unclassified, preliminary talking points that could be used by members of Congress to address a fluid situation." Here, too, Rice had no involvement with the discussion, even though she and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were said to have been the main advocates of U.S. participation in the NATO intervention over Benghazi to prevent humanitarian slaughter in 2011. Nevertheless, the controversy prompted Rice to withdraw her name from consideration as secretary of State back in December.

Second, while both Rice and Power have a reputation for being aggressive advocates of overseas intervention, in contrast to outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon (known for taking a more traditional realpolitik view of national interests), in truth both women have embraced far more nuanced views than they often are credited with. Like Obama himself, both Rice and Power have moderated their views on U.S. military intervention abroad over the years, in large part because of the backlash from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, preferring to resort to diplomatic pressure, "moral suasion" and other tools. Neither woman, in fact, has been a pronounced voice on military intervention in the civil war in Syria.

In appointing Power last year to head his Atrocities Prevention Board, Obama cautioned that while he believed "preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest ... that does not mean that we intervene militarily every time there's an injustice in the world. We cannot and should not." Power, a former journalist who first came to public notice as the author of an impassioned Pulitzer-winning book advocating intervention against genocide, A Problem from Hell, said in an interview at the time that she was completely in sync with the president's cautious views about intervention. She said it was very misleading to confuse atrocity prevention with military intervention, and that the board was mainly an attempt to set up bureaucratic procedures and raise consciousness. In the case of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, for example, she noted, the Clinton administration never even held a "principals' meeting" about the slaughter, and it didn't use indirect methods such as radio jamming to prevent the Hutu paramilitary, the "Interahamwe," from calling for the murder of Tutsis--methods the Obama administration might use today.

Rice is also said to be passionate about atrocity prevention and human rights, probably far more than Donilon. Rice has described herself as haunted by the Clinton administration's failure to do anything to prevent the Rwandan atrocity, at a time when she was a director on the National Security Council. In an interview in 2008, Rice told me that she was too "junior" to have affected decision-making then, but that "everyone who lived through that feels profoundly remorseful and bothered by it." In a speech in 2009, Rice broke down in tears as she described visiting Rwanda six months after the mass murders, walking through a field strewn with decomposing corpses. "For me, the memory of stepping around and over those corpses will remain the most searing reminder imaginable of what our work here must aim to prevent," she said.

Still, human-rights advocates have accused Rice of also playing a game of realpolitik, or compromising with dictators such as current Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with whom she has a long relationship, also in order to avoid direct U.S. involvement overseas. In a 2009 essay in the New York Review of Books headlined "Kagame's Secret War in the Congo," Howard French, a long-time New York Times correspondent in Africa, called the largely ignored conflict "one of the most destructive wars in modern history" and suggested that Rice had either naïvely or callously trusted new African leaders such as Kagame and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to stop future atrocities.

Rice's defenders say she is only reflecting the president's cautious views, as might be expected of an advisor who has been among the closest to him dating to the beginning of his campaign for the presidency in 2007. While Kagame has a checkered human-rights record at best, he has also supplied economic growth and stability, Rice advocates say. And while Rice, like Donilon, is said to have sharp elbows in handling staff and some foreign-policy elites have questioned her temperament, she also brings impressive, even unprecedented credentials to the White House. A Rhodes scholar out of Stanford who is considered intellectually brilliant, Rice is "the first Africa expert ever to be a principal in the U.S. government," says a former State department advisor who supports her. Much in the vein of Hillary Rodham Clinton at State, Rice sees a need to promote economic development as well as human rights and personal liberty, he says. "This is someone who understands complex challenges. She'll be a 21st century national security advisor."

So, once again, it's game on at the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The president, who indicated with his rollout of federal appellate court nominees on Tuesday that he's ready for a new round of fights with the GOP, may be gambling that Susan Rice is no longer worth much of a tussle.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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