Rice, Power and Obama's Vindictiveness

The latest personnel move is a deliberate slap at Republicans.

President Obama's choice of Susan Rice for national-security adviser says more about his attitude and modus operandi than it does about Rice herself.

Certainly, Republicans have blamed Rice for, as many assert, deliberately misleading the American people about the cause of the Islamist attack of September 11, 2012 on the American consulate in Benghazi (which left four dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, and ten others wounded). On the Sunday following that attack, Rice appeared on five talk shows and asserted that the attack on the consulate was linked to a protest in Cairo over an anti-Muslim film. That assertion proved to be false, and the furor that erupted in its aftermath led Rice to request that the president withdraw her nomination for secretary of state.

But whereas Rice demonstrated a degree of both realism and prudence regarding her prospects for Senate confirmation, the president is now showing arrogance and defiance not only with his appointment of Rice to fill Tom Donilon’s job, but also by nominating Samantha Power to replace Rice.

Of course, the president is entitled to name anyone to serve as his national-security adviser. The job is a post that does not require senatorial advice and consent, and its incumbent is not answerable to Congress. Nevertheless, given the ongoing investigations of who exactly was responsible for the negligence that resulted in inadequate protection of the Benghazi consulate, the Rice appointment is a deliberate slap at Congressional Republicans.

Ironically, Rice, who continues to serve as ambassador to the UN, a Senate-confirmed position, has been at pains to avoid further flaps with Congress. And the ramifications of Benghazi have gone far beyond what Rice said on the Sunday talk shows. In fact, it is now generally acknowledged that Rice was a messenger: her statements drew upon talking points that had been handed to her and that were a product of an exceedingly messy process that was at best geared to provide scant information to the public—and at worst, as many Republicans allege, a blatant cover-up. Nevertheless, she remains the face of the Benghazi scandal, particularly since Hillary Clinton’s departure from the State Department. The president, on the other hand, seems intent on further intensifying his war with Congressional Republicans, regardless of its impact on U.S. foreign policy and America's image in the world.

That image is in tatters. Officials, analysts and observers worldwide are questioning whether the United States can maintain its commitments in the face of a sequester that has already eaten into operations—the primary symbol of American power overseas—and that threatens to do so for some time to come. Europeans are uncomfortable with the scale of the U.S. military drawdown on their continent; Middle Easterners worry about the pivot to Asia; Asians worry whether the pivot is real. Now, these same officials and analysts see a president whose dysfunctional relations with Congress brought about the sequester adding fuel to the fire by naming an individual who makes many Republicans see red.

If the Rice appointment were not enough to anger Republicans, the announcement that the White House intends to nominate Samantha Power as her replacement simply infuriates them. Power is an arch-ideologue, the high priestess of liberal interventionism. Even Hillary Clinton was not sufficiently ideologically pure to meet Power’s exacting standards: during the 2008 presidential campaign, Power labeled her a “monster.”

No wonder that when Power appeared on the cover of the May/June 2011 issue of The National Interest, her photo was topped by one word: “interventionista.” As Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in that issue, “it would be hard to think of a more ardent promoter of [humanitarian interventionism] than Samantha Power.” Many would also agree with his assertion that “absent Power, Obama may not have intervened in Libya,” especially as then secretary of defense Bob Gates and the senior military leadership were markedly lukewarm about doing so. And now Obama has rewarded her with the UN job, which will no doubt serve as her platform for committing American blood and resources to intervene wherever she espies a humanitarian cause.

There is a catch, however. Unlike Rice, Power needs the Senate’s advice and consent. Either the president relishes another confirmation bloodbath, a la Rice last year, or more likely, he is once again simply trying to “stick it” to the Republicans—even if that means, again, a la Rice, that he ultimately will withdraw the nomination. Whatever his motive, it is not benign.

The times are long gone when the great Republican internationalist Arthur Vandenberg could assert that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Still, it is hard to recall the last time a president allowed his personal sense of vindictiveness against the opposition party govern his choice of his foreign-policy team. Because Rice does not have to appear before the Senate in order to move to her new job, Power will bear the brunt of Republican venom against them both. The scenes are sure to be ugly, and the already tarnished American image will pay the price. What was the president thinking?