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Obama Shakes Up Foreign Policy Team

Rice To NSC; Power To UN


Obama Shakes Up Foreign Policy Team

On June 5, 2013, President Barack Obama announces his selection of Samantha Power (left) to become U.S. ambassador to the UN, the retirement of Tom Donilon as national security adviser, and the designation of Susan Rice (right) as Donilon's replacement.

Photo By Alex Wong/Getty Images
Updated June 07, 2013

President Barack Obama pulled off something of political coup on June 5, 2013, with a shuffle in his foreign policy team. The move may bring about a more aggressive Obama foreign policy. It will absolutely anger Republicans still simmering over the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Obama's maneuver came in three parts:

  • Announcement of the retirement of Tom Donilon, Obama's national security adviser since 2009.
  • The transfer of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice into the national security adviser's job.
  • The designation of Samantha Power, currently senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on Obama's National Security Council (NSC), to replace Rice as UN ambassador.

Obama's Coup; Republican Anger

Recall in November 2012, after Obama's re-election, Susan Rice was a top candidate for the position of secretary of state, which Hillary Clinton was vacating after four years.

Also recall that Republicans, headed up by Arizona Senator John McCain, castigated Rice for her role in what they called a "cover up" of the Benghazi attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others. Rice fielded questions about the attack on the following Sunday's political talk shows using "talking points" given her by the State Department (with perhaps some help from the CIA). When some of Rice's information turned out to be incorrect, Republicans pounced -- never-mind that her bailiwick was the U.N., not Libya or State or the CIA or the NSC.

Republican opponents vowed to thwart Rice in confirmation hearings if Obama nominated her. With so much pressure, Rice withdrew her name from consideration. Obama instead nominated Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (whom many, including this writer, thought was the lead contender anyway). Kerry won easy confirmation.

Now Rice will be just down the hall from Obama in the West Wing and right by his side in the formation and practice of foreign policy. Given that there are no confirmation hearings for the job, Republicans can do nothing about it.

By late June 5, McCain had already said he did not agree with the appointment, but he would try to work with her.

Power needs Senate confirmation to take the UN position. She can expect some Republican opposition, but she is not tainted by Benghazi, and hawks should favor her since she greatly influenced Obama's decision to intervene in the Libyan civil war in 2011.

Praise From Obama

Obama had plenty of praise for everyone. He called Donilon, who will retire in July, "one of the most effective national security advisers our country has ever had." The president described Rice as "the consummate public servant -- a patriot who puts her country first. " Rice has previously served on the NSC staff and as assistant secretary of state. Obama said, "I think everybody understands Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity, but she's also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately."

Obama said Power is "One of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy, [who] . . . showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity."

Does Shakeup Signal Policy Change?

Washington insiders and foreign policy reporters see Donilon as having been rather cautious as the NSC. Rice and Power, however, are more aggressive, especially when it comes to seeing the U.S. lead out human rights abuses, atrocities, and anti-democratic forces. They mark a break from traditional foreign policy that placed American interests -- such as natural resources or geo-political positioning -- before the interests of humankind.

While he talked neither of his partisan political ramifications of the shakeup nor of any policy changes, Obama may have given some hints when he described Rice and Power. Of Power he said she "has been a relentless advocate for American interests and values, building partnerships on behalf of democracy and human rights, fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism and combatting human trafficking. To those who care deeply about America's engagement and indispensable leadership in the world, you will find no stronger advocate for that cause than Samantha."

And Rice "has helped to put in place tough sanctions on Iran and North Korea. She has defended Israel. She has stood up for innocent civilians, from Libya to Cote d'Ivoire. She has supported an independent South Sudan. She has raised her voice for human rights, including women's rights," said Obama.

In short, Rice and Power are fighters -- fierce advocates for human rights, democracy, and personal opportunity. Expect differences. One cannot see them arguing for the American ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq of the last decade.


President Obama's Remarks On Foreign Policy Team Changes." June 5, 2013. Accessed June 5, 2013.

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