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US security reshuffle

Sabina Casagrande
June 6, 2013

US President Barack Obama has placed two long-time confidantes into top security positions in his administration. But analysts say the changes will not result in a shake-up of US foreign policy.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 05: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) speaks as former aide Samantha Power (L), U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice (R) and incumbent National Security Adviser Tom Donilon (2nd R) react during a personnel announcement at the Rose Garden of the White House June 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama has nominated Rice to succeed Donilon to become the next National Security Adviser. Obama has also nominated Power to succeed Rice for her position to UN. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

The appointment of Susan Rice as new national security advisor and the decision to replace Rice with human rights advocate Samantha Power as US ambassador to the United Nations did not come as a surprise - and indeed, according to analysts, few surprises can be expected with respect to US foreign policy.

"I wouldn't expect any kind of revolutionary change from either of these appointments," Anthony Dworkin, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Under the Obama administration, the White House - not the State Department or other agencies - has become the power center for foreign policy decision-making. Rice and Power will not change this. Both women have been a part of Obama's inner circle for many years already. Rice's appointment keeps foreign policy decisions even more within the walls of the White House.

US will continue multilateral stance

Obama's choices for the two top posts indicate that he is intent on pursuing his multilateral approach to US foreign policy. According to Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Obama made this clear when he announced his nominations.

Susan Rice at United Nations Headquarters, in New York City USA, 13 April 2012. EPA/PETER FOLEY +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ pixel
Susan Rice is known for her bluntnessImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human decency," Obama said. "But she's also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately."

The choice of the word "wisely" is a clear indication of Obama's thinking, Scheffer told DW. "That to me is really Obama's doctrine: We still have to exercise an important significant leadership on the international scene but we have to use our power wisely. And I think this was also a message he was sending to Susan Rice as a sort of warning that her nomination will certainly not lead to a new type of interventionism."

The same is true of Power. A former journalist, Power won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," which examined US foreign policy toward genocide in the 20th century. She has been Obama's main advisor on international human rights issues since he took office.

"Her humanitarian instincts will be combined with a desire to work through the UN system as far as possible," Dworkin said. "In that respect she will be very different from a neo-conservative type approach to humanitarian intervention as we saw under the Bush administration, where the strong instincts to protect human rights were combined with a distain for the international system, which they saw as holding America back."

Struggling with the Syrian conflict

Both Rice and Power are advocates of more robust American intervention in conflict zones for humanitarian purposes - and were among those credited with persuading Obama to approve a NATO-led intervention in Libya. They are hawkish on human rights issues and humanitarian issues are expected to weigh into calculations in the White House. But they are also realists, Dworkin said.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office, on June 28, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)
All final decisions on foreign policy are made in the Oval OfficeImage: Getty Images

"They are both quite sensitive to political context and are aware of trying to be realistic in what you can achieve," he said. "I expect a realistic discussion but one which makes sure that the humanitarian dimension is not neglected."

Despite their reputations as interventionists on humanitarian grounds, neither Rice nor Power has come out with a public position on Syria that differs from the president's. According to Scheffer, a change in Obama's position on Syria cannot be expected.

"At the end of the day, Obama is his own national security advisor," she said. "He is really the one shaping and driving US foreign policy so even though he's appointing these two strong women that we traditionally call 'liberal hawks' or 'liberal interventionists' I do not believe that will drastically change Obama's personal position on Syria."

Syria is not Libya

Obama has been extremely hesitant to get involved in the Syrian conflict. The situation is also very different from the efforts to intervene against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, which involved widespread support from international players.

Rebel fighters from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade attend a training session at an undisclosed location near the al-Turkman mountains, in Syria's northern Latakia province, on April 24, 2013. AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide arms to the Syrian rebelsImage: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

"Rice has explicitly recognized that what could have worked in Kosovo or in Libya will definitely not work in Syria," Scheffer said. "So on this issue, she's very much on the same line as Obama."

In addition, Syria involves many more unknown factors, such as who is behind the insurgents fighting against the Syrian regime.

"The Syria situation is so complex and there are all kinds of factors feeding into US policy," Dworkin said. "The decisions are very complicated. Both, (Rice and Power - ed.), I think, will be very aware of the risks of weapons getting into the wrong hands, of the country disintegrating, of creating areas for terrorism that would draw the US back in in the way it doesn't want to."

Dworkin says that the situation is much too complicated and fluid to be able to make the clear-cut argument for intervention. "I think it depends how things play out, it depends how the peace talks go, it depends what the course of the war is."

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