The White House has announced that two foreign policy officials famous for their advocacy of liberal interventionism are getting big new appointments: Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, will take over as national security adviser, a powerful position that allows her to shape much of U.S. foreign policy from within the White House. Samantha Power, a former academic and journalist best known for her coverage of the Rwandan genocide and Balkan conflicts, is nominated to replace Rice at the United Nations.
Rice famously said, after her tenure in the Clinton administration during the 1994 genocide 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." Power wrote an entire book on preventing such atrocities, called "The Problem from Hell."
So, naturally, many observers are wondering if the elevation of Rice and Power means that the United States might take a more active role in Syria, where a number of particularly horrific atrocities are playing out at this very moment. But there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.
First, even if Rice and Power are more apt to embrace interventionism in general than is President Obama, on the particular issue of Syria they appear to be on the same page. As Jeffrey Goldberg writes at Bloomberg Views, "Advocates of greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war, the most acute problem Rice will face in her new position, will be disappointed to learn that she isn’t particularly optimistic about the effect that any U.S. action -- such as imposing a no-fly zone -- will have on the war’s outcome."
Second, the administration believes, and not without reason, that the biggest constraint on Syria policy is not internal White House ideology but the unattractive options for the United States. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University associate professor and Foreign Policy blogger, told Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen that Power and Rice “are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn’t expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”
Third, even if Power and Rice did disagree with Obama on Syria, he's already overruled more senior and experienced officials who wanted to upgrade U.S. involvement. He shot down a 2012 plan, backed by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, CIA chief David H. Petraeus and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to directly arm the Syrian rebels. Even if they wanted to, it's not clear that Power and Rice would be better positioned to change U.S. policy.
Fourth, while it's true that Power and Rice have been advocates of humanitarian intervention, something that can get lost is the kind of intervention they've sought. Both are big proponents of multilateral processes and international institutions; the kind of thing we saw in the Libya intervention, which had both a United Nations Security Council resolution and the heavy participation of several European and Arab countries. And, as Slate's Matthew Yglesias pointed out on Twitter, Power is particularly focused on proceduralism. None of that appears likely to happen with Syria; Russia, a member of the U.N. Security Council and close ally of Syria, still opposes any action, which makes going through the United Nations next to impossible. And other NATO states appear to have little appetite for intervention.
None of that necessarily means that Power and Rice represent the status quo on all other issues or that U.S policy on Syria will never change. But don't expect either to shake up the Obama administration's thinking on one of the toughest issues it faces in the world.