Susan Rice, Samantha Power, And Syria

How would the addition of Susan Rice and Samantha Power to the President's foreign policy team affect policy toward Syria's civil war?

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With the President making the formal announcement this afternoon that he has selected U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be his new National Security Adviser and longtime adviser Samantha Power to be replace Rice at the United Nations, speculation has turned to what impact these moves are likely to have on the direction of foreign policy in President Obama’s final term. Specifically, given the fact that both Rice and Power have a reputation as advocating a foreign policy of intervention to prevent or stop human rights violations, and that they were both heavily involved in advocating for intervention in Libya in 2011, their selection raises the question of what influence Rice and Power might have on U.S. policy toward the civil war in Syria. To date, President Obama has displayed a decidedly cautious approach toward the idea of even indirect intervention in the form of arming the rebels, and it seems rather clear that there has been very little support inside the Administration for such intervention notwithstanding the fact that the President has at various times drawn “red lines” for the Assad regime. Now, with two advocates of what has been referred to as the “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine, one wonders if there’s a possibility that a policy shift may be at hand.

Over at Commentary, Max Boot is certainly among those who hopes that there will be:

Considering that Power and to a lesser extent Rice have argued that the U.S. has a “responsibility to protect” populations subject to genocide or other war crimes, it would be disheartening indeed if the administration in which they serve at increasingly senior levels were to continue to do little as the list of atrocities in Syria pile up. Especially when there is growing support in the region for action. Just this week Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Turkish academic and diplomat who is head of the 57-country Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria. However much Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other regional allies would support such a step, they are not going to impose a no-fly zone on their own. That depends on American leadership, which so far has been conspicuously missing.

Obviously, Boot is among those that favors greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war and he’s hoping that bringing Rice and Power closer in to the President’s inner circle will influence the President to take steps to seek that greater involvement notwithstanding the obvious risks of doing so and the fact that the American people clearly do not favor such a course of action. Based on what we know about the two of them, it’s perhaps not an unfounded hope on his part. After all, both have written and spoken extensively on the idea of using American power to prevent and put an end to glaring human rights abuses even in situations where American national interests are not directly at stake. However, as Mark Landler notes at The New York Times, Rice and Power have been far more circumspect when it comes to the Syrian situation than their previous rhetoric might have predicted:

[A]s Mr. Obama and his aides have long argued, Libya is no Syria. The first was a clear-cut case in which air power could prevent Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from killing thousands of rebels in their stronghold; the second, a sectarian struggle, pits a regime with sophisticated air defenses against rebels scattered throughout the country.

Neither Ms. Rice nor Ms. Power has spoken out publicly in favor of a more aggressive American response to the blood bath in Syria, which is perhaps not surprising, given Mr. Obama’s well-known views and their own roles as rising stars in his administration.

Administration officials said that in the debate last summer about whether to supply the rebels with arms – a proposal pushed by the then-director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David H. Petraeus – Ms. Rice sided with those who opposed it. Over time, however, officials said, she has become more open to lethal aid, given the stalemate in the civil war.

Gary Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, said that in formulating its Syria policy, the administration would have to answer a basic question.

“Do you think of Syria as being a Rwanda or a Bosnia, where human rights concerns trumped everything?” he said. “Or do you see it as more like Iraq, where it’s not clear there’s a good side to get behind?”

There are other voices for stronger action, including Secretary of State John Kerry. He may find common cause with Ms. Rice on Syria even as he struggles to carve out an influential role in an administration where decision-making resides at the White House.

Jeffrey Goldberg, meanwhile, notes that Rice in particular has expressed considerable skepticism about direct U.S. involvement in Syria:

Rice is known as a liberal interventionist (as is the woman being named to replace her at the UN, the writer and former National Security Council staffer Samantha Power), but advocates of greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war, the most acute problem Rice will face in her new position, will be disappointed to learn that she isn’t particularly optimistic about the effect that any U.S. action — such as imposing a no-fly zone — will have on the war’s outcome.

Rice, like the president, seems focused on the possibility that the downfall of Bashar al-Assad’s regime could mean a victory for al-Qaeda-like groups that represent some of the strongest elements of the Syrian opposition. The Obama administration is desperately seeking to avoid the creation of terrorist havens in Syria, because they would represent a direct national-security threat to the U.S. and would require an armed American response.

The American experience in Libya — not the Benghazi attack, which was searing in its own way — has also chastened Obama’s national-security team: The intervention on behalf of rebels fighting the late, unlamented dictator Muammar Qaddafi, may very well have saved thousands of innocent lives, but the fallout from Qaddafi’s overthrow (the rise of al-Qaeda-like groups, the spread of Libyan weapons across Africa, the general misery and instability that now afflicts the country) has taught Obama’s advisers, Rice included, important lessons about the unpredictability of intervention. Politically, the administration has seen no upside to the Libyan intervention — it was criticized for recklessness by both Democrats and Republicans — and in a very political White House, these domestic considerations often take precedence.

It’s possible, of course, that Rice and Power have simply just been reflecting Administration policy in their previous comments, and that they will become more forceful advocates of greater American involvement in Syria once they are in positions where they have the ability to actually influence policy to a far greater degree than before. Furthermore, the fact that they both have a personal friendship with the President arguably makes their ability to have a voice at the table, as opposed to, say, John Kerry, that much greater. So perhaps Goldberg and Landler will end up being proven wrong and we’ll see significant changes in U.S. policy toward Syria once Rice and Power are in place, we really can’t know until we get there.

In the end, though, that seems unlikely based on what we do know. As noted, neither woman appears to have taken a strong pro-intervention position regarding Syria when given the opportunity. Perhaps it is the case that they share the view that seems to be prevalent in some quarters that sees Syria not as another Libya (although the past two years have shown that the Libyan intervention was far from a massive success), but as potentially another Iraq. It certainly does seem to have all the qualities of living up to that analogy. Like Iraq, Syria is torn by ethnic divisions that are likely to explode in the event the Assad regime falls, possibly bringing allies and enemies from neighboring states in to the conflict along with them. Putting American forces into the middle of that, or engaging in a policy that would effectively make the United States or the West responsible for the political future of Syria, a nation that was little more than the creation of the French to begin with, would be as big a mistake in the long run as the invasion of Iraq and our post-Saddam policy turned out to be. For all the faults you can ascribe to him for foolishly drawing “red lines” for Bashar Assad that clearly weren’t going to be enforced, it seems apparent that President Obama recognizes these risks and that he’s reluctant to get the nation  involved in another potentially long war after having gotten us out of Iraq and establishing the guide path for our withdrawal from Afghanistan. From their public comments, it would appear that Rice and Power share that view, as do other advisers on the President’s foreign policy team.

Power should most certainly be questioned about her previous comments about “Responsibility To Protect” and how it might apply to the Syrian situation. The American people deserve to know what kind of advice the President will be getting if she is confirmed. However, for the moment at least, it doesn’t appears as if the selection of Rice and Power is going to result in significant changes in the President’s policies in Syria. Hopefully, that turns out to be true.

Photo by White House Photographer Pete Souza via White House Flickr Feed

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Obviously, Boot is among those that favors greater American involvement in the Syrian civil war

    Is there really anything Boot doesn’t favor greater American involvement in?

  2. Blue Shark says:

    …So nice to see some gender equality in the top levels of government considering Obama’s SCOTUS appointments and now the Nat. Sec. appointments.

    …So different than the top Republican’s panels on women’s health and reproductive rights without any women.

  3. Caj says:

    How dare President Obama pick someone who lied to the country! Oh no, that’s not my thinking that’s the thinking of Republicans. You see, they just can’t let this Benghazi thing go. No matter that Susan Rice was just giving out information that was known at the time and had been passed on to her. But no, in Republican land she lied deliberately to the American people. So of course now we will have to hear about Benghazi yet again and how she is not qualified to hold this new position. Both ladies are highly qualified for both positions and will work well with the President about any moves in Syria. So nice to see two women in positions that may involve any military action. They like the President will not be a hurry to put boots on the ground or I hope give out weapons not knowing who is who. Unlike John McCain who seemed to think we could easily sort out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys! Aren’t you glad he never became President? We’d have been at war with Iran and now on the verge on war with Syria should he have made it to the White House twice! Scary thought!!

  4. michael reynolds says:

    I believe in R2P as a principle. I do not wish to see it become a trap. Responsibilities have to be tempered by practical realities. We just ended one war, we have one still on-going, and for sh!ts and giggles we bumped off Qaddafi. Kinda think that’e enough, especially since the Syria problem is in my opinion not likely to be improved by us poking into a 1400 year-old religious war.

    Turkey is right there with a great big army and NATO-level air power. If Turkey asked us to get in for their benefit, we might have to consider it. But as far as I know they haven’t asked. I don’t believe Israel has, either.

    High blowback potential, high difficulty level, relatively small chance of success. I think we give this a pass.

  5. stonetools says:

    For all the faults you can ascribe to him for foolishly drawing “red lines” for Bashar Assad that clearly weren’t going to be enforced, it seems apparent that President Obama recognizes these risks and that he’s reluctant to get the nation involved in another potentially long war after having gotten us out of Iraq and establishing the guide path for our withdrawal from Afghanistan. From their public comments, it would appear that Rice and Power share that view, as do other advisers on the President’s foreign policy team.

    If there are mass gas attacks a la Halajba, the Obama Administration will go in with guns blazing. Take that to the bank. THAT was always the real red line, and everyone understands (or should have understood) that. Assad seems to understand what the red line is, and he won’t cross it , since it looks likely now that he can achieve a victory using conventional arms.

    Apart from that, I think that Obama will intervene to help certain rebel groups with targeted, clandestine military aid. I think the Europeans will also. If they don’t, Syria with Iranian help will close this thing out this year.

  6. Andy says:

    the fallout from Qaddafi’s overthrow (the rise of al-Qaeda-like groups, the spread of Libyan weapons across Africa, the general misery and instability that now afflicts the country) has taught Obama’s advisers, Rice included, important lessons about the unpredictability of intervention.

    It would be nice if the coterie of DC elites would learn these lessons without spilling other people’s blood. Harvard, Yale and Oxford (where these elites spawn) seem to breed the special kind of hubris that dismisses the negative consequences inherent in exercising American military power.

  7. bill says:

    doesn’t matter here, assad has already killed what, 70K? and unlike libya, the russians back the regime and obama wants no part of them. that was easy.
    from an American standpoint;
    – there’s no oil
    -there’s little sympathy for the rebels as we don’t get much of a glimpse of them for whatever reason
    – and after libya, they’re probably as bad or worse than assad.
    -Israel can take care of them as our proxy military.

  8. Andy says:

    Assad’s forces, after two years of losing ground, are beginning to gain it back. It’s hard to predict, obviously, who will come out on top, but it’s likely that once one side gains a decisive advantage the bloodletting will really get going. If Assad’s forces gain the upper hand and put down the rebels like his daddy did in Hama I think Rice’s fence-sitting would end pretty quickly.

  9. Rob in CT says:

    I’d say it’s less about how they will change things as it is about how promoting them illustrates the degree to which Obama is already in alignment with their views.

    Which is, to me, troubling. I loathe R2P. It sounds nice, but it has as much potential for disaster as it does for good. We’re just not that good at doing good using the firepower of the US military. If you think about that for about ten seconds, you’ll realize why.

    This is the side of Obama that got us into Libya. Sigh.

    Max Boot, awful as he may be, is a pimple on the ass of American foreign policy. Obama is the leader of that policy. And he’s promoting R2Pers. Same ‘ole, same ‘ole. Liberal interventionists to the Left of me, NeoCons to the Right…

  10. Robert H. Stiver says:

    For heaven’s sake, Boot is a Jew and a Zionist, irretrievably intertwined with the “neocon” label. He doesn’t give a damn about America: whatever is good for Israel is what Boot is for. If this Israel-firster considers himself an American to boot, he’s a traitor to our core national-security interests.

    Israel has bombed the sovereign nation of Syria at will and illegally, with impunity. Israel wants a strong Syria under Assad out of its way (think Iraq…) to tighten the screws on Iran (and Hezbollah) so that direct war on Iran is all the more feasible.

    This is all about militant/political Zionism and its genocidal designs against the Palestinians and its hegemonic lust for wider and wider swaths of the Mideast. The idiotic Arab regimes of Saudi et al are intent on losing sight of their true enemy….

  11. bill says:

    @Robert H. Stiver: syria can attack Israel whenever they want for these “illegal’ bombings….if they had a spine. too bad the entire region is afraid of one tiny nation. your ‘antisemitism’ masquerading as anything else is just a joke. assad is slaughtering his own to the tune of nearly 6 figures, and your concern is Israel lobbing a few warning shots? get real.