White House shake-up may put Syria action on the front burner

White House shake-up may put Syria action on the front burner

New National Security Adviser Susan Rice and UN envoy Samantha Power could push for more robust action against Damascus, though Power’s nomination may suffer for anti-Israel statements

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

WASHINGTON – “Those who didn’t want him as chief of staff got him as defense minister, and those who didn’t want him as defense minister will have him as prime minister,” journalist Uri Dan famously and presciently quipped about former prime minister Ariel Sharon in the 1980s.

It was the sort of political prophecy that would have suited Susan Rice, the outgoing US ambassador to the UN, just as well. As the Obama administration’s de facto spokesperson in the aftermath of the September 11 terror strike on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Rice became the focal point for Republican rage over what many on the right believed to be deliberate downplaying of the terrorist nature of the attack in the sensitive few weeks before a presidential election.

Republican senators’ vociferous opposition to her appointment as secretary of state, a position that must be confirmed by the Senate, led to an ignominious withdrawal of her informal candidacy.

On Wednesday, the White House said she would be appointed the next national security adviser, succeeding Thomas Donilon. Under a succession of advisers, including Donilon, major national security and diplomatic decision-making has been increasingly concentrated in the White House. Those who didn’t want Rice as America’s top diplomat will now have her as the administration’s top foreign policy planner, arguably serving as Secretary of State John Kerry’s de facto boss.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN in June 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN in June 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The domestic message is clear. By appointing Rice to the highest strategy-planning position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation, Obama is sending a message to opponents in Washington that he will not abandon his staff, and that he will not bend to pressure from the opposition.

While the political message made up a great deal of the early coverage in US media on Wednesday, the rest of the world is watching the personnel change with other things on its mind. Rice’s appointment will likely raise new expectations for US policy on Syria, and possibly for the US response to any violent fallout from the Iranian presidential elections later this month. The election in 2009 was marred by violent suppression of opposition protests in the wake of a vote many Iranians charged was rigged.

Rice’s views on US military intervention were heavily influenced by her experience as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the Clinton National Security Council from 1993 to 1995. Rice was among those administration officials who successfully argued against intervening in the 100-day systematic massacre of as many as a million ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda.

“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,” Rice told journalist Samantha Power in a 2001 Atlantic article titled Bystanders to Genocide that blasted the Clinton administration’s inaction at the time.

In that article, which the Atlantic’s headline writers called “a chilling narrative of self-serving caution and flaccid will—and countless missed opportunities to mitigate a colossal crime,” Power recorded a stern warning from Rice about the dangers of pursuing tactical political expediency at the expense of the larger moral need.

“There was such a huge disconnect between the logic of each of the decisions we took along the way during the genocide and the moral consequences of the decisions taken collectively,” Rice said. In the decade that followed, Rice would often demonstrate a stronger appetite for intervention than many others in the US foreign policy debate.

With the death toll in the Syrian civil war expected to pass the 100,000 mark in the coming months, Rice’s entry into the inner policymaking circle of the president may mark a turning point in the administration’s willingness for more robust intervention.

And one of Rice’s allies in advocating for that intervention may very well be the journalist who brought her hard-earned lesson to light in 2001, Samantha Power, who was formally nominated for the UN role on Wednesday.

Power is an expert on genocide and human rights, author of the Pulitzer-winning “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide about US inaction in the face of 20th century genocides, and a past critic of Israel. She served as senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights on the National Security Council from the start of Obama’s first term in January 2009 until March 2013. Now head of the White House’s Atrocities Prevention Board, she is known as an advocate of international intervention to prevent human rights abuses.

At the press conference announcing her nomination on Wednesday, Power said, “The question of what the United Nations can accomplish for the world and for the United States remains a pressing one. I have seen UN aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan. Yet I’ve also see UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia.”

On at least one occasion, her advocacy for intervention included a call, in a 2002 interview during the height of the Second Intifada, to deploy a “mammoth protection force” in Palestinian areas to protect the Palestinians from Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders, she argued, “are fundamentally politically destined to destroy the lives of their own people,” leading to a situation that “unfortunately…does require external intervention.”

During Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which Power advised, critics said her past comments amounted to advocating a military invasion of Israel. Power has distanced herself from those comments, which forced her resignation from the campaign five years ago, but initial responses to her nomination on Wednesday suggested the issue may play less of a role than might be expected.

The Anti-Defamation League welcomed Power’s appointment outright, noting her work over the past four years against demonization of Israel in international bodies.

“As head of President Obama’s multilateral affairs efforts, Samantha engaged in an all-hands-on-deck US campaign against Palestinian unilateral efforts in the UN to circumvent peace negotiations,” the ADL said in a statement. “She experienced first-hand the hostility faced by Israel and the abuse of the UN bodies to promote anti-Israel bias. As someone who appreciates, to the core of her being, the meaning of international human rights mechanisms, Samantha is clear eyed and understands the injustice of their abuse to target Israel’s legitimacy.”

It remains to be seen if the nomination fares well among Republicans. The Republican Jewish Coalition, the party’s outreach arm to the US Jewish community, was less than enthusiastic about the appointment, suggesting her Senate approval process won’t be trouble-free.

“Samantha Power has a record of statements that are very troubling to Americans who support Israel,” RJC executive director Matt Brooks said in a statement. “We urge members of the US Senate to question her closely about her past statements and writings. She must respond to the strong doubts about her views raised by that record. Senators should also examine her tenure as head of the President’s Atrocity Prevention Board to see what results, if any, came out of her time there.”

“The US has an important role to play in the United Nations to defend freedom, Western values, and our democratic allies,” the RJC added. “We need an ambassador who will fight for US interests in the international arena. Samantha Power must show the Senate and the American people that she can fill that role.”

read more: