Thursday, June 06, 2013


"With the appointment of Susan Rice as national security adviser, President Barack Obama has completed the reshuffle of his foreign policy team. Ms Rice, who is currently the US ambassador to the UN, takes her place alongside John Kerry at the state department and Chuck Hagel at defence. The common feature of all three appointments is that they are Obama people. This was not the case with their predecessors. Hillary Clinton was not close to Mr Obama, nor was Leon Panetta at defence. Tom Donilon, the outgoing national security adviser, became so but was not initially an intimate. Now Mr Obama has a team he can be comfortable with for his second term. All US administrations depend on how well the various players work together. The role of the national security adviser is first and foremost to oversee this process, co-ordinating agencies and channelling advice to the president as it comes from different parts of government. This was a skill that Mr Donilon possessed in spades and should not be underestimated. The other job is to advise the president. Traditionally, national security advisers have been good at one or the other. This is hardly surprising. Being both an honest broker and a forceful adviser is a bit like trying to umpire a match while simultaneously playing for one of the competing teams. Ms Rice’s challenge is to preserve the efficiency of the machinery but also to think strategically, especially about the relationship with China. Her appointment offers grounds for hope and caution. The hope is that she will help to tilt foreign policy in more of an activist direction at a time when the US faces pressing challenges in the Middle East and Asia. Alongside Samantha Power, her successor at the UN, Ms Rice is instinctively more of an interventionist than her predecessor, notably on humanitarian issues. The question is where a habitually cautious president stands. If there is a worry it is Ms Rice’s reputation for being abrasive and uncollegiate. This sits ill with the requirement for a smooth conductor ensuring the administration functions like an orchestra. While Mr Donilon had his critics, he was able to do this. With Ms Rice, the answer is less clear".
Leader, "Obama’s reshuffle: Susan Rice’s new appointment raises hopes and concerns." The Financial Times. 6 June 2013, in
"President Barack Obama's appointment of Susan Rice as his national security adviser, and of Samantha Power as her replacement as ambassador to the United Nations, is being heralded by the media as a bold move. But it's not likely to change Obama's foreign policy very much. First of all, by this point in an administration nearly all policy is set, and that is particularly true when so much of the management and decision-making has been made by the president himself. Indeed, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was deputy national security adviser in the first term and will continue to be a de facto national security adviser of last resort for Obama. Second, to the extent that second-term appointments may affect the course of the administration, the ones that seem to matter most are John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel to run the Department of Defense. The reason is simple: There is no group that senators trust and respect more than other senators. That has set up a remarkable power center in this administration, as the top four decision-makers for the first time in modern history are all former senators and all know each other from their service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry and Hagel will be responsible for hashing out the hard decisions to come, the biggest one being whether to use military power in Syria and Iran. I doubt that the presence of Rice and Power instead of Rice and the man she's replacing, Tom Donilon, will change things much when it comes to deciding whether or not to launch a new war in the Middle East to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Similarly, the political fallout from an Israeli decision to attack Iran will be at the forefront of America’s posture if the Israelis end up making such a fateful choice. Here again, Obama, a former senator himself, is likely to continue to rely on his fellow politicians—Biden, then Hagel and then Kerry—in this area. The third reason not to expect much change in the Obama foreign policy is that most of the hard choices have already been made. For better or worse, Washington chose to leave Iraq without a residual force in place, to speed up the withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops from Afghanistan right after launching a troop surge, and to avoid, seemingly at all costs, the involvement of the U.S. in the Syrian civil war that has become the biggest Middle East crisis in a generation. Those decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the ones that will define the Obama term.... All in all, while personnel matters a lot in Washington, in the rest of the world this personnel shift is likely to be seen as interesting but not particularly consequential. Far more important are the threshold questions of: What will it take to cause the U.S. to intervene in Syria, now that the war is spreading into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and could spark a frightening regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites? And will the U.S. roll the historic dice and attack Iran as its nuclear weapons capability emerges? And finally, will the U.S. have the wherewithal to implement the rebalancing of forces and attention from Europe and the Middle East to Asia in such a way that ten to twenty years from now Washington remains Asia’s most important power rather than ceding that role and responsibility to China?"
James P. Rubin, "Susan Rice Won't Make Much Difference: Her new role as national security adviser will have little impact on Obama's foreign policy." The New Republic. 5 June 2013, in
If I had to choose who is more likely to predict accurately the importance of the new appointments to the American Administration, then I would of course choose Mr. Rubin over the leader writer at the Financial Times. Au fond he is correct: in a very very collegial, administration, neither the egregious Miss Rice, nor the even more egregious Miss Powers, will count for very much. Especially the latter. Safely holed up in New York, her jejune form of Liberal-bourgeois interventionist rhetoric can do little if any harm to the decision-making process. As for Miss Rice, the key question is accurately enough raised in the Financial Times: if she has either the ability or the willingness to play the role of guardian and gatekeeper of the foreign policy decision-making process? Or will she see herself as another Henry Kissinger come to life? The truth of the matter is that the only National Security Advisor who has had any positive impact and earned a place in the history books in the last thirty odd years, has been those who learned to sublimate their wishes to dominate the decision-making process in favor of being a gatekeeper of the same. The man who fulfilled this role to perfection was of course General Brent Scowcroft under Presidents Ford and Bush the Elder. The sad fact of the matter is that no National Security Advisor since Zbigniew Brzezinski has come close to seconding Kissinger's place in the history books in terms of dominating the decision-making apparatus. Those after Brzezinski, with the exception of General Scowcroft, have been a mixture of outright failures: Richard Allen, Anthony Lake, Admiral Poindexter, Condoleezza Rice; and those who while essentially little better than mediocrities were also a safe pair of hands: Frank Carlucci, General Powell, Mr Donilon, Samuel Berger, Mr. Hadley, General Jones, Colonel MacFarlane. And perhaps that is just as well, as history does not throw up the likes of Dr. Kissinger very often. With that being said, the underlying truth of Mr. Rubin's comments hold: the essentials of American foreign policy for the reminder of the current President's term has been decided upon. For good or for ill. As it seems to relate to intervening in Syria and the negotiations with Persia, I would (to my surprise) say for good, so far. As Madam Mere allegedly put it: 'let us hope it lasts'.


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