Rice Fits in Obama's Proud Tower

The new national-security adviser will not change the president's approach.

America should be very happy for our president. At last he has found the national-security adviser whose worldview perfectly suits his.

What America should worry about is how President Obama sees the world.

In The Proud Tower, historian Barbara Tuchman wrote of the pre–World War I era: “The period was not a Golden Age or Belle Époque, except to a thin crust of the privileged class. It was not a time exclusively of confidence, innocence, comfort, stability, security and peace.” Much like elite of the Edwardian age, President Obama believes he has the world well in hand.

The world did not work out so well for the Edwardians. War crashed their peace party. But President Obama has built his own “proud tower” and seems determined to live there, regardless of world events.

By the end of his first year in the Oval Office, the president had pretty clearly laid out his doctrine for securing America’s place in the world. He would cut deals with competitors. Push soft power over hard. Then, he would outsource everything to international organizations like the UN. That became the core of the Obama Doctrine.

The president has tried hard to stick to the path he laid out—withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan; trying to sign every treaty in sight; scoping down the war on terror; and putting a happy face on every contentious bilateral relationship. Where forced to lead, he has chosen, in the words of one of his advisers, to lead from behind.

Obama gets points for doggedness but not for success. His doctrine has failed on every front. The Russian relationship is underwater. Libya is a disaster—ditto Iraq. The Taliban is just waiting for NATO to leave. Al Qaeda is back in the game. China claims sovereignty over any island where anyone has dug up a shard of Ming pottery. North Korea is as petulant as ever. Iran is more, not less, aggressive. If foreign policy were a report card, the White House ought to be ashamed to admit it belongs to them.

In appointing Susan Rice as national-security adviser, the president signaled that he has no plans for a course correction in foreign policy. America is going to get more of the same. Rice fits comfortably in the president’s proud tower.

And so the United States will continue to engage in half-hearted, feel-good interventions. Rice, along with Secretary of State John Kerry and Samantha Power (slated to become the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations) are passionate proponents of the norm known as “Responsibility to Protect.” R2P holds that the “international community” is obligated to intervene to prevent genocide and other atrocities.

In a 2009 speech at the International Peace Institute in Vienna, then UN ambassador Rice pretty much declared R2P to be U.S. policy. The Responsibility to Protect, she declared, “is an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict. …. This approach is bold. It is important. And the United States welcomes it.”

Rice will also cheerlead for soft power over hard power. President Obama is committed to cashing in a peace dividend, downsizing U.S. military capabilities to take pressure off the federal budget. Along with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Rice believes that soft and hard power are fungible: a little foreign aid and diplomacy can be swapped out for an aircraft carrier or a fighter wing. In a 2010 article in The American Interest, Joseph Nye, father of soft-power equivalency, lauded Rice as one of its most effective advocates.

Finally, Rice will reinforce Obama’s belief that one can cut reasonable deals with reasonably bad people. Granted, sometimes we have to deal with bad people. But we don’t have to go overboard and give them hugs. In a eulogy of strongman Meles Zenawi, for example, she described the late Ethiopian prime minister as “brilliant,” “a son of Ethiopia and a father to its rebirth.” Yet Zenawi, whose net worth was estimated to be $3 billion at the time of his death, had a far-less-than-stellar record on human rights and had cracked down on civil rights—such as press and speech freedoms—as well.

The Rice appointment is not really about Susan Rice. It’s about how the White House plans to keep us safe, free and prosperous in the future. And it tells us that the president remains firmly committed to the same bag of tricks it has tried the last four years.

If that kind of foreign policy delights you, then the Rice appointment is good news indeed. But what if you worry that a violent storm has been gathering while the president, in his lookout tower, has stared fixedly in the opposite direction? In that case, you have much to worry about as Rice takes up her spot in the West Wing of the proud tower.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.