Susan Rice at the NSC

by Robert E. Hunter

Turnover in top US foreign policy and national security jobs can often be a “good thing” — for the nation and the world. New brooms at least start out with a different look at the world, its problems, challenges to the United States, and choices about what to do.

This also often happens when the presidency changes, though that time is also fraught with the downside of newness — what in Washington jargon is sometimes referred to as the need first to find one’s way to the washroom, in addition to getting to know and adjust to one’s new colleagues.

The foreign policies of those leaving office (especially if the party in control of the presidency also changes) are remembered as almost universally bad — the partisan spin; though within months, the old gang is understood to have not got things all that wrong, given the (necessarily) limited latitude that the US has, even as the world’s most powerful country.

Change at the top in the midst of an administration is a different thing. Even if a new team has a will to change things — note, for instance, Secretary of State John Kerry’s hyperactive efforts to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians — existing policies and practices already have momentum, or a quality of bureaucratic inertia and integration within Washington politics.

At the same time, however, members of the new team have an advantage in that they have likely already been working together, developing their relationships and learning how the government “really works.”

Thus it is with Susan Rice’s moving from her position as US Ambassador to the United Nations to National Security Advisor in the White House and her replacement, from the current National Security Council staff, Samantha Power. Both have the critical quality of lengthy (and trusted) associations with President Obama, one of the most invaluable “coins of the realm” in Washington power politics and position.

Instant commentary has largely focused on the foreign policy activism of both officials newly at the top. And that has apparently been true — up until now.

In 2011, both were reportedly in the camp, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, credited with tipping the president over the edge into supporting Britain and France in their efforts to topple Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

While that account is most likely exaggerated, the key point is that Rice/Power’s activism for “humanitarian interventions,” as several commentators have opined, will be sharply constrained by a more basic fact of life: Obama has made clear he is not about to trade his ending US military engagement in Iraq and sharply reducing it in Afghanistan for more wars in the Middle East.

Thus Obama has resisted pressures from US hawks and Israel to make war on Iran, though he has given hostages to fortune by accepting “red lines,” of some indefinite nature, along with his continued claims that “all options are on the table”.

In other words, he has made a critical war-peace decision conditional on Iranian and Israeli restraint — never a good place for a US president to be — but so far his bet (a handful of aces or bluffing with a busted flush) has not been called.

Obama has also been so reluctant to get the US more deeply engaged in the Syrian civil war that it is unlikely that the change in personnel will produce a decisive difference. At the margins, perhaps — and in those details lurk a hundred devils.

It’s also important to understand what Obama has been about up until now. It appears, at least to this writer, that he sees his legacy as domestic; summarized in two words: economy and equality.

This is quite an agenda and one that, if considerably advanced, would mark him as a major figure in US history, a legitimate legatee of FDR and LBJ. This inference contains a lesson for engagement abroad, however: Obama should accomplish what the US has to do, but keep this from interfering with the pursuit of his domestic agenda.

This can include accomplishing abroad tasks critical to that purpose, such as working to restore confidence in the global financial system, launching a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and recognizing the growth of the Economic Beasts of Asia: China, the Greater, and India, the Lesser.

Hence the “pivot” to Asia slogan, or the less-colorful, “rebalancing”. But so far there’s only slogans with limited policy substance and certainly no coherence across the different instruments of power and influence and US domestic fiefdoms.

Keeping the world from interfering unduly with Obama’s own “rebalancing” or primary attention to his domestic agenda (which, on the economic side, is actually a demand, given the mess he was handed in 2009) — was arguably the principal job of the foreign policy team for the First Term.

Tom Donilon, the outgoing National Security Advisor, was not a foreign policy mastermind, but in the Obama scheme of things he didn’t need to be.

Helping Obama with the running down of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, making sure that two more didn’t begin, maintaining a pretty tight hold on policy overall, and keeping foreign policy to the extent possible out of the 2012 presidential campaign, Donilon did his job.

But trying to put the world “on hold” has now run its course.

For more than two decades, the United  States has in effect been eating its seed corn in terms of strategic assessment, thought and planning for the post-Cold War world.

Following George H.W. Bush’s two signal foreign policy achievements of wrapping up the Cold War in Europe (as well as setting the basis, followed by Bill Clinton, for writing finis to the European Civil War of 1870-1991) and showing that the US could and would use its unmatched and unmatchable military power to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, the US has been acting as though its great reserves of power and influence can substitute for thinking about a truly new construction of global relationships.

While there has been an attempt to understand that, in the new world, working with others is absolutely necessary, along with sharing the right to make the Big Decisions and melding effectively military, diplomatic and economic instruments, not much has been done to build on that basis.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been major cases in point. While “kinetic” power has largely done its job, the work of economic and political development has largely failed.

And in Afghanistan, not long after the 2014 end of the lead role for Western forces, the world’s verdict is likely to be — both there and in much-more-important Pakistan — Mission Not-Accomplished.

Much can be said about the various tasks that Susan Rice will now assume in the White House, but nowhere with more immediate importance than in regard to the Middle East (and Southwest Asia).

There, three administrations in a row have not managed to forge an integrated approach and strategy, but have tended to see the bits and pieces of the region from North Africa to the Hindu Kush as just that — bits and pieces.

As much as anything else, domestic politics has driven much of US policy in the region, in particular the US part of the long-running confrontation with Iran, and there is no indication that this will change.

The US still has not been willing to put “all options on the table” by recognizing that the legitimate security needs of three counties — the US, Israel, and Iran — all need to be considered.

The failure to create a viable strategy toward Iran and its nuclear program, short of the president’s hand being called at some point regarding military attack, was underscored this past week when he signed an executive order further ratcheting up sanctions.

He did this a mere 10 days before the Iranian presidential elections on June 14th.

If someone in Washington were trying to think up a way to ensure that the worst of the worst will be elected — to the extent we could have any impact — it would be hard to think of a more effective tactic.

(Consider, for instance, how the US electorate would have responded if, say, China or Russia had rattled sabers in 2008 just when “dovish” Barack Obama was running against “hawkish” John McCain).

Then there is Syria, in civil war, with a rolling civil war across the region, where the US has got itself smack in the middle of age-old competitions and hatreds between Sunnis and Shi’as, and where some of America’s closest Sunni allies are deeply involved in supplying weapons (and ideologies bitterly and aggressively hostile to the West) to the so-called rebels.

And at least in public, there is not even a hint that the administration has been planning what it will do if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is removed from power…or if he stays.

In either event, there will be another product of the ripples of the religious and geopolitical rivalries that began spreading across the region when the US dropped a great big bolder on Iraq in 2003, thus ending three centuries of minority Sunni dominance over the majority Shi’as, and thus leading Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others to try righting the region’s Sunni-Shi’a balance through Syrian regime change.

When it comes to what the new National Security Advisor should do, the first step is obvious: Ms. Rice should assess the NSC team she is inheriting and ensure she has first-rate players in terms of capacity to engage in strategic thinking and relate systematically the world’s apples to its oranges.

Whether Susan Rice is herself a top-rate strategic thinker and leader, able to do what has to be done in terms of analysis and craft, is not yet clear; we must hope that she will prove to have these skills.

In any event, she needs to get the best people possible for her Senior Staff, where it is a great stretch of the imagination to argue that the Obama Administration has either sought out the best, from within and without the government, or employed them effectively.

This is at a time when the NSC staff has become bloated to being the largest ever: effective, perhaps to meet the Donilon task of having enough people-power to assert control over the rest of the foreign policy apparatus, but an oxymoron in regard to serious strategic thinking.

The rule of thumb (demonstrated when Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft were National Security Advisors) is that capacity for strategic analysis, thought, planning and policy tends to exist in inverse proportion to the number of people involved in doing it.

In sum, shifts in global power and influence mean that we must learn to think our way toward the future.

In particular, as has happened to every US president since Harry Truman, the Middle East demands that the president and his team get it right or suffer unfortunate consequences.

As the top official closest to the president, both in physical distance (a few yards) and in prior association, this buck stops with Susan Rice.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.