The departure of Thomas Donilon President Obama’s National Security Advisor was not a surprise as he had earlier indicated his intention to leave his position sometime this year. He had maintained a low profile during his two years plus assignment, but had apparently discharged his duties competently. It was Donilon who had journeyed to Beijing to set the stage for the recently concluded first meeting in California between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A few days before that meeting, Obama held a ceremony at the White House to introduce the two new incumbents of his reshuffled national security apparatus. Susan Rice the current Permanent Representative at the UN is to replace Donilon on July 1 and in turn be replaced in New York by Samantha Power.
What do these changes in the upper echelons of the US foreign policy establishment portend for the conduct of Washington’s foreign relations? Here is a preliminary assessment. Both personalities are reputed to be fervent advocates of human rights and humanitarian intervention. They know each other well and are reported to be friends. I mention this aspect because the wheels of foreign policy decision making grind more smoothly if oiled by favorable personal chemistry. Power wrote a well received book, among others, on the horrors of genocide, has taught at Harvard and worked in the National Security Council. Rice was a Rhodes Scholar, an Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department for African Affairs, and first choice of Obama to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Rice had to withdraw her name from consideration because of statements she had made last September about the killing in Benghazi of the US ambassador to Libya and three other American diplomats at the hands of terrorists. Rice had apparently used talking points provided to her which largely attributed the violence to a video insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Some Republican Senators thought that the Rice explanation for the Benghazi fiasco was a cover up by the Obama administration, which had failed to foresee the anti-Americanism prevalent in Benghazi. They vowed to block her nomination to become the third woman Secretary of State.
The biggest asset both appointees possess is the confidence and regard they enjoy with Obama. Both had thrown in their lot with candidate Obama in his epic struggle against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. They have rightly reaped their rewards for loyalty to Obama. As to how each will fare in their new responsibilities, I will start with Samantha Power. She is not a career diplomat which is a deficit in my playbook. The UN job requires extensive experience of multilateral diplomacy, which in turn depends on a familiarity and more importantly, patience, with the sometimes arcane rituals of the UN. Prior experience is thus a sine qua non to understanding and capitalizing upon the sometimes byzantine workings of the UN, where the UN international civil servants are often jousting with the diplomats representing 193 sovereign nations. The way the UN works sometimes can remind one of the Borgia court and Machiavelli. Major powers therefore usually appoint as their Permanent Representatives high achieving career diplomats with prior experience in a junior capacity, at the major UN outposts of New York and Geneva. Political appointees can fall flat on their faces if they are not quick to learn the ropes at the UN. I speak from personal experience having served as a career diplomat representing the Pakistan Mission to the UN. This is not to say that every political appointee to the UN would be like a fish out of water. Some performed admirably for the United States in the UN arena.Personalities like Adlai Stevenson, William Scranton and Andrew Young come to my mind-the last two based on my personal observation of their work. On the other hand an ideologue like John Bolton-a Bush 43 appointee-was an ineffective representative largely because of his preconceived antipathy to the UN. I am sure that Ms. Power knows this background and hopefully will fit in the UN milieu with the passage of time. One can only wish her bon courage as the French would say.
Regarding Ms. Rice her expertise of foreign affairs is well documented but is largely confined to African issues. Here she came in for criticism for allegedly cozying up to African dictators.I have learnt that recently she had spoken to a small group at a prominent foundation in New York where, inter alia, she characterized Russian policy on Syria as “mad”! She should learn to be more temperate in her remarks which require the gravitas expected of a Permanent Representative to the UN, and one soon to be anointed as National Security Advisor! With the pivot to Asia enshrined as a cardinal principle of US policy, she will have to catch up on this area and other areas of vital interest to the US.As National Security Advisor she will be called upon to reconcile for the President the often times conflicting advice of State, the Pentagon and the Security agencies and give her own advice based on the menu of options presented to her. Some of the time the position can become an echo chamber for the President’s views.Thus the person has to possess considerable knowledge and finesse in order to be an effective Advisor. In fact while the Trumanesque buck does stop at the President’s desk, it has to pass the desk of the Advisor first. Rice has formidable credentials. Let us hope she uses them wisely in supporting the President.