At the Intersection of Rice and Power

In Samantha Power and Susan Rice, Obama taps a more activist overseas team

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President Barack Obama walks with Tom Donilon, Susan Rice and Samantha Power in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday, June 5, 2013, in Washington.

With the appointment of Susan Rice as his national security adviser and the nomination of Samantha Power as his new ambassador to the United Nations, President Obama has chosen to elevate two of his Administration’s strongest human rights advocates with long records of advocacy for more U.S. action overseas to prevent genocide and atrocities.

Obama’s first term foreign policy team included such intervention-wary realists as Bob Gates and Leon Panetta at the Pentagon and Tom Donilon and Dennis Ross at the White House. If his first term foreign policy had a theme, it was an orderly withdrawal from U.S. commitments overseas, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan.

But now Rice and Power are filling out a second-term foreign policy team that includes John Kerry at State, Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon and Tony Blinken, who moved over from Vice President Joe Biden’s office to become deputy national security adviser earlier this year. All three men are perceived as more interventionist than their predecessors. That said, the President—reflecting public opinion—has so far resisted efforts by Kerry and members of both parties in Congress to increase U.S. engagement in Syria, even as the death toll from that two-year-old conflict approaches 100,000.

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Both Rice and Power began their careers as the Soviet Union was collapsing and the U.S. found itself the world’s only superpower. Through different experiences, both women came to the conclusion that America’s power should be used to do good, even when that good wasn’t evidently in America’s self-interest. Essentially, they believe that the U.S. had a moral responsibility to protect innocent people, even from their own regimes. Such thinking is a significant departure from the realism that has helped the U.S. turn a blind eye to the holocaust, Cambodia’s killing fields and other massacres over the years. Bob Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation, and a former ambassador-at-large at the State Department, noted that most administrations in recent history have been guided by what he described as “the instinct that one ought to pursue a policy of realpolitik in defending the nation’s national security interests.” But, he says, “it’s difficult to say that that won’t change” with this shake up of Obama’s foreign policy team.

Susan Rice, 48, has long said that her biggest regret is not doing more to push President Bill Clinton to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when Rice served as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the National Security Council. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” she would later say. Indeed, Rice’s tenure at the U.N. has been marked by strong—and often surprisingly successful—pushes toward intervention. Rice’s impassioned 20-minute speech on Muammar Gaddafi’s threatened genocide of his own people helped sway Russia and China to allowing a U.N. resolution that condoned use of force in Libya. “That was almost a surprise to everyone in the room,” says a former staffer who was with her at the time. Rice also helped persuade Obama to send in U.S. special forces to train African troops to hunt the warlord Joseph Kony in the Central African Republic. And she helped get Russian and Chinese support for another U.N. resolution sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program.

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Samantha Power, 42, got her start as a journalist for the Boston Globe covering the genocide in Bosnia. She went on to write the Pulitzer-prize winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. She founded the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government before being named Special Adviser to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights by Obama in 2009. In April 2012, Obama named her chair of the newly formed Atrocities Prevention Board. She was also considered key in influencing Obama to intervene in Libya and the Central African Republic. In the past, Power has been highly critical of the United Nations and other international institutions for being too slow to respond to atrocities and too weighed down by bureaucracy. Her confirmation is by no means a certainty in the Senate; her record mirrors that of another second term, tough love U.N. ambassador: John Bolton, whom George W. Bush recess appointed to the post after Democrats in the Senate blocked his confirmation.

Rice’s appointment requires no Senate confirmation – a lucky thing given continuing GOP outrage over what they see as her role spinning the Benghazi terrorist attack as nothing more than a protest go awry. But not so long ago – when Rice was pushing the U.N. Security council to intervene in Libya – Republican hawks like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were singing her praises. Indeed, McCain hailed Power as “well qualified” to be U.N. ambassador, reflecting his support of a muscular American role overseas.

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