Susan Rice and Obama's Incoherent Vision

The president is putting a square peg into a round hole. But he can do that—he's the decider.

While Susan Rice’s appointment as National Security Advisor has been widely expected for some time, it appears to have received serious little consideration from President Obama and his top aides.

Sure, Rice is smart, a close advisor and a loyal political ally. And she had to withdraw from consideration for nomination as Secretary of State for reasons that some may view as unfair. Everyone gets that. But what does the decision say about Obama’s foreign policy?

First, it says that the president has no coherent foreign-policy vision or strategy. Otherwise, it would make little sense to appoint cautious pragmatists like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel at the State Department and the Pentagon and then add the interventionist Rice to the mix. They will inevitably push Obama in different directions.

The president’s defenders might argue that these differing perspectives will create a healthy debate and exchange inside his administration—but that case is hard to make given Rice’s combination of a reportedly belligerent personality and widely-advertised closeness to the president. Under those circumstances, it seems more likely that her presence will stifle rather than promote debate. Time will tell.

More generally, to the extent that the president has foreign-policy goals (as opposed to vision or strategy), the choice of Rice will do little to help him. Judging by his decisions and actions, Obama’s principal foreign-policy objective is to avoid problems that could undermine his domestic agenda. Here, the president has done himself no favors in selecting Rice on two counts: she is controversial among Republicans and she seems ill-suited to personal diplomacy with challenging interlocutors in China, Russia, or other important nations whose cooperation the administration wants and needs in dealing with Iran, Syria, North Korea and other pressing issues.

Ultimately, the main message from the president’s decision is that he cares so little about foreign policy that he is not too worried at forcing a square peg into a round hole. Since he is the president, he can do that—he’s the decider. But like anyone else who tries jamming a part into the wrong place, he may well break something in the process.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.