In a major second-term foreign policy shuffle, President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice will take over from Tom Donilon as his national security adviser. Obama also announced that long-time confidante Samantha Power will replace Rice at the U.N.
Obama, speaking in the Rose Garden with all three officials at his side, called the national security adviser's job "one of the most demanding, if not the most demanding" in the executive branch, with a portfolio comprising "literally the entire world."
The president said he was "wistful" about Donilon's departure, set for early July, but "extraordinarily proud" to name Rice to replace him.
"I could not be prouder of these three individuals," Obama declared. "They have made America safer, they have made America’s values live in corners of the world that are crying out for our support and our leadership."
Obama had considered Rice last year to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state—but went with John Kerry instead after Republicans made it clear they would block Rice due to the controversy over the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist strike in Benghazi, Libya. She withdrew her name from consideration.
GOP lawmakers accused Rice of misleading Americans about the attack on the first Sunday news programs after the deadly raid. But documents released earlier this year show that Rice was working from talking points crafted by the intelligence community and shaped by an inter-agency process overseen by the White House in which she appears to have had little to no input.
The appointment—which does not require Senate confirmation—comes with Obama days away from sitting down for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping and facing international crises including the civil war in Syria and the increasingly tense standoff over Iran's suspect nuclear program.
Rice and Power—who left the National Security Council earlier this year, and is best known as a human rights advocate and champion of U.S. intervention to prevent genocide—are both close to the president. Their picks confirm a pattern of Obama picking close aides or longtime allies, not outsiders, for key posts in his second term.
Power's nomination requires Senate confirmation. Republicans are sure to seize the opportunity to pick apart Obama's foreign policy. And they could use some of Power's own past comments as ammunition.
In addition to Kerry as secretary of state, Obama chose Republican former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. Both criticized the Iraq war (after initially supporting it) and are not known as eager interventionists. As national security adviser, Rice would be in charge of adjudicating disputes among the various agencies as well as helping the president chart a course on world affairs.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been sharply critical of Obama's foreign policy and of Rice's role, sounded somewhat conciliatory in a note on Twitter:
Obviously I disagree w/ POTUS appointment of Susan Rice as Nat'l Security Adviser, but I'll make every effort to work w/ her on imp't issues
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) June 5, 2013
Donilon is considered the architect of Obama's so-called "pivot" to Asia, an effort to recalibrate American foreign policy with a fresh focus on that region—and notably on a rising China. But he has taken heat as well in the media, where he has sometimes been portrayed as a harsh boss and someone overeager to protect Obama politically.
Obama said Donilon had played a key role in “every single national security policy” of his presidency, notably citing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the decision to pull American combat forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and the efforts to build a “constructive relationship with China.”
Asked if the president's selection of Powers and Rice signals any shift with regard to Syria, White House press secretary Jay Carney responded that even though the president expects his advisers to voice their opinions, he remains the chief decision-maker. "The president’s policy on Syria will be the president’s policy as it is today," Carney said. He responded to a separate question on Powers' confirmation saying "we would not expect" a contentious process.
Still, a Power confirmation hearing could dredge up some of her past writings, which have been ... undiplomatic.
In a March 2003 piece in The New Republic, Power lamented that American foreign policy in the 1990s under then-President Bill Clinton was in the grips of "sloth induced by our seeming invincibility and unprecedented wealth." (She also memorably mocked foreign policy pundit Tom Friedman of The New York Times and his so-called McDonald's Doctrine: "Since no two countries with golden arches on their skylines had ever made war on each other, it would be left to Big Macs to prevent gross violations of human rights.")
As for her future workplace, if she's confirmed, Power also wrote that "the U.N. Security Council is anachronistic, undemocratic, and consists of countries that lack the standing to be considered good-faith arbiters of how to balance stability against democracy, peace against justice, and security against human rights."
And she urged a full accounting of the "dark chapters" of American foreign policy, like CIA-backed coups in Guatemala, Chile and the Congo; the Vietnam War-era bombing of Cambodia; and support for right-wing paramilitary groups tied to human rights abuses in Latin America.
"U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought. It needs not tweaking but overhauling. We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States," she wrote in the piece.
That view ultimately had little purchase in the Obama administration, which ended interrogation practices widely seen as torture, but did not prosecute those who carried out those practices or ordered them.
Rice served on then-President Bill Clinton’s foreign policy team in the 1990s—and her early embrace of Obama’s White House bid was seen as a betrayal by some on Clinton’s team.
News of the shake-up was first reported by The New York Times.
Rachel Hartman contributed to this report.