President Obama’s newly designated national security adviser, Susan Rice, and his proposed United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, are political loyalists. They are also known as liberal interventionists — emotionally seared by U.S. passivity during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and advocates for military action to prevent a Libyan bloodbath in 2011. So the question arises in Washington and foreign capitals (say, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus): Is the president repaying his debts or making a foreign policy statement?
To Rice, a debt is clearly owed. Following the Benghazi attack, she was sent into talk-show battle with distorted guidance, leaving her both guiltless (in this matter) and unconfirmable as secretary of state. A White House staffer, however, serves at the president’s pleasure — and Rice has earned his confidence.
Power is only beginning to earn her elevation. She does not have a résumé that allows for a quiet, anonymous Senate confirmation. As an anti-genocide activist and writer, she has made a career of inflicting discomfort on public officials. Congress may enjoy the turnabout. Power has been an opinionated, occasionally intemperate, journalist and academic who has left a long paper trail on controversial topics.
She is also a superb choice.
I first got to know Power in her role as a thorn in the side. Having criticized President Bill Clinton for dithering on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, she had taken to criticizing President George W. Bush for dithering on atrocities in Darfur. (I presume she discovered, serving in Obama’s National Security Council, the powerful institutional bias in favor of dithering on issues such as atrocities in Syria.) As a policy adviser to Bush, I sometimes found Power’s criticisms to be unfair or partisan.
Meeting her, I found something else. This was intemperance in the best of causes: protecting the innocent from violence. Her passion, sincerity and candor were impressive. She held convictions worth getting worked up over.
Power would bring some uncommon qualifications to U.S. diplomacy. She is a multilateralist who has also written extensively on the limits and failures of the United Nations. She understands the reality of evil in human affairs — the kind that fills mass graves with bodies and covers them with lime. She believes that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak. She is outraged at outrageous things. It is hard to argue that government has an excess of these qualities.
During her hearings, Power will be called upon to explain some past statements — contemplating absurd hypotheticals or engaging in partisan excess — that the nominee herself has called “weird” and evidence of “stupidity.” I suspect that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will find her blunt assumption of responsibility for past errors unusual and disarming.
The more important question: Will the appointment of Power and Rice influence the direction of Obama’s foreign policy, which has generally resisted intervention and the assumption of new burdens?
Apart from Syria, it is likely to make a large difference. A number of issues will gain sponsorship at the highest level of government: fighting human trafficking, going after war criminals such as Joseph Kony, anti-atrocity efforts in other regions. Even a modest push on humanitarian issues can put bureaucracies and coalitions into motion.
On Syria, the options are flawed and the president is hesitant. But it is absurd to think that personnel is irrelevant to policy. Large, immediate shifts are not likely. But moving forward, each incremental choice will be influenced by a team of advisers — including Rice, Power and Secretary of State John Kerry — who are predisposed toward greater support for the responsible Syrian opposition. And if worst comes to worst — as it tends to in Syria — there will be people in the room arguing to prevent mass atrocities. The president, of course, can ignore their counsel — and then spend his retirement explaining why.
In an interview Power conducted as a journalist, Susan Rice recalled her experience dealing with Rwanda during the Clinton administration. “There was such a huge disconnect between the logic of each of the decisions we took along the way during the genocide,” Rice said, “and the moral consequences of the decisions taken collectively.”
This points to a role that Power is well-qualified to play. If she spends the next three years trying to make the United Nations work as a model institution, it will be frustrating and useless. If she spends the next three years calling attention to the moral and human consequences of collective decisions, it could make all the difference in the world.