Jacob Heilbrunn

The Return of the Liberal Hawks: Susan Rice and Samantha Power

President Obama has hewed to a firmly realist course in refusing to intervene militarily in Syria. His picks of Chuck Hagel for Defense and John Kerry for the State Department signaled that he was in no rush to attack Iran, either. But now his administration is embarking on a different course—or at least balancing his foreign policy team with two advisers more inclined than not to engage in interventions abroad.

The two are, of course, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. Current national security Tom Donilon, who is a cautious lawyer and a former aide to Warren Christopher, who staunchly resisted intervening in the Balkans Wars during the early years of the Clinton administration, is stepping down. Rice, who was at the center of the controversy over Benghazi, will become Obama's national security adviser, a position that doesn't require Senate confirmation. Rice's Republican detractors will get another chance to fume over her clumsy talking points but will be unable to do much about her promotion.

Power has not attracted as much controversy as Rice. She is actually the more interesting and substantial of the two. Power is slated to replace Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rice will presumably come to her post somewhat warier of engaging in partisan politics on behalf of the Obama administration. Her career did not implode over Benghazi but it cost her the opportunity to become Secretary of State. For Obama, her elevation gives him the opportunity to show that he is not truckling to his critics and stands by his loyalists. The irony is that Rice may exercise more power as national security adviser than does Kerry as Secretary of State. To a greater extent than any president since Richard Nixon, Obama appears to have centralized power in the White House.

What about Power? For her the UN post is the perfect posting. Power brings a moralistic penchant to the UN, which has proven a great launching pad for a number of her predecessors. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Madeleine Albright all made their reputations as staunch defenders of America at the UN. Power is a celebrity in academic and media circles, but her new position has the potential to propel her to much greater fame.

When it comes to foreign policy, Power will have little direct influence on foreign policy, though Obama clearly admires her. It is Rice who will be at the center of foreign policy. Perhaps Obama, like not a few presidents before him, is attempting to create competing power centers in his administration. If so, he has balanced the realists versus the interventionists. The question is whether Obama has learned a lesson from the Libyan venture, where he lost the trust, as David Bromwich notes in the New York Review of Books, of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, who felt "betrayed" by the insistence on regime change. Bromwich says,

Americans for a long time have tended to think (when we think of other countries at all) that the more new nations spring up, the better. This goes with our relaxed communitarianism but bears little relation to realities elsewhere. Our latest siege of optimism, which followed the collapse of the Soviet empire, has now been given a fair trial over a quarter of a century. It has not always worked out well. Not in the Balkans, not in the former Soviet republics, and not, it seems, in the Middle East.

Will Obama heed this lesson? Or will Rice and Power successfully push Obama to revert to the credo of the liberal hawks?