On Wednesday, President Obama announced that he would appoint Susan Rice to succeed Thomas Donilon as the assistant to the president for national security affairs. It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of this position, commonly known as the president’s national security adviser — the chief White House national security aide.
Although we were colleagues at the White House during the Clinton administration in during the 1990s, I worked most closely with Rice in late 2008, when she asked me to lead the task force planning her transition to the position of U.N. ambassador, the job she has held for the past four years.
During that 2008 transition process, Rice put forth an ambitious agenda for U.S. engagement with the United Nations on a broad array of peace, security and development issues. Over the past four years, her determination and leadership have been instrumental in achieving critical U.S. objectives.
For example, she has successfully pressed U.N. member states to endorse the toughest sanctions on Iran and North Korea ever imposed by the world body; the transition to independence for South Sudan, and a broader U.N. commitment to prevent atrocities around the world. She has also enhanced U.S. standing at the U.N., in part through her successful advocacy within the administration and with the Congress to pay U.S. back dues to the organization.
Rice has been criticized by some for sharp elbows and impatience with diplomats who stand in the way of American objectives. But the attacks are misplaced and, frankly, reflect gender bias. One of Rice’s male predecessors as U.N. ambassador, the late Richard Holbrooke, was similarly tenacious in his advocacy within the Washington bureaucracy and in his diplomacy. Holbrooke was praised, with commentators noting that his style was key to achieving U.S. objectives, such as lifesaving peacekeeping deployments in the Balkans and East Timor.
That same sort of tenacity has served Rice well at the United Nations and will be an important asset in her new job. And while she will also have to collaborate with Cabinet-level counterparts to reach consensus on national security policy, the president clearly wants a strong White House lead on foreign policy, and Rice is well-suited to ensure it.
Rice also comes to her new job with a deep commitment to strong U.S. leadership in promoting a rules-based international system. As reflected in her successful advocacy for the U.N.-sanctioned intervention in Libya, she also believes that U.S. credibility in international relations is directly related to the values we promote as a nation. She may well press for a more robust U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
While most senior Republican legislators involved in foreign affairs have expressed their intention to work with Rice, some critics of her September 2012 comments about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, have strongly opposed her appointment.
However, her new position does not require Senate confirmation, and there is no evidence to suggest she sought to mislead either the Congress or the public in her Benghazi remarks. Rather, her comments — indicating that Washington’s initial view was that the attack began as a spontaneous demonstration that was joined by extremist elements with heavy weapons — reflected guidance developed by the CIA and the State Department without her involvement. Whatever continued scrutiny this issue receives, it is unlikely that Rice’s capacity to do her job will be undermined.
At a time when the administration has been criticized by some as being too reluctant to assert international leadership, the president has chosen a skilled foreign-policy activist to serve as his national security adviser. This suggests a determination to press hard for progress on key issues, whether in Syria, Iran, China or Afghanistan.
For those who believe that strong U.S. engagement is essential to solving critical issues of peace and security around the world, this is welcome news.
Eric Schwartz is professor and dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He previously served as assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, and he directed the Obama United Nations transition team in 2008.