Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced two key replacements in his national security team. While the president remains the key foreign policy decision-maker, the changes constitute important shifts and could well impact his decisions. To nations like Japan, they are also a reminder of the role that women can play in national security policy.
Mr. Obama announced that Ms. Susan Rice, currently serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would replace Mr. Tom Donilon as national security adviser.
Replacing Ms. Rice at the United Nations (subject to U.S. Senate confirmation) will be Ms. Samantha Power, a former journalist who has been serving as presidential adviser on human rights and multilateral affairs. The moves were long-anticipated.
Ms. Rice was thought to have been Mr. Obama’s first choice to replace Ms. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, but that transition was derailed by the political fallout over Ms. Rice’s comments following the attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that resulted in the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel.
Even though Ms. Rice merely reiterated talking points on Sunday talk shows, she became the target of Republicans dissatisfied with the administration’s response and the controversy made her confirmation as secretary unlikely.
But as an Obama loyalist — Ms. Rice was an adviser before he was first elected in 2008. With great knowledge of foreign policy issues, Ms. Rice was destined to take a position closer to the White House. Mr. Donilon had insisted that he wanted to leave as early into the second term as possible, and an orderly transition required six months. This is partially why the announcement of his departure was made, to the surprise of some, on the eve of the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Having personally handled the China portfolio, Mr. Donilon said he wanted the Chinese to understand and be prepared for the transition.
Mr. Obama remains the decider in chief. As when Ms. Clinton left, or when Mr. Chuck Hagel replaced Mr. Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, the contours of U.S. foreign policy remain in place.
The “rebalance to Asia” will remain the framework for U.S. foreign policy, alliances will continue to be priorities, and the relationship with China will dominate many issues. Ms. Rice has been a member of the national security team for four years — albeit from a distance — as has Ms. Power, although she will have more authority as U.N. ambassador.
The moves do have two potential implications, however. First, both Ms. Rice and Ms. Power are longtime members of Team Obama, unlike Ms. Clinton, Mr. Hagel and Mr. Donilon. In his first term, Mr. Obama was applauded for putting together “a team of rivals” that would provide him the best advice, regardless of the president’s own preferences.
As “insiders,” the range of options Ms. Rice and Ms. Power provide the president could be narrower and their willingness to challenge him diminished. On the other hand, it is possible that they may feel more comfortable disagreeing with Mr. Obama because of their longer relationships with him.
The second important change reflects the fact that Ms. Rice and Ms. Power are both “liberal interventionists” — they favor the use of force to achieve such objectives as ending incidents of mass violence, as is occurring now in Syria. Mr. Donilon, by contrast, was a skeptic about such intervention. His absence means that one powerful voice for restraint has been lost.
Again, however, Mr. Obama remains the decider, and he is well known to favor a more skeptical approach to the use of power, especially in the Middle East.
As national security adviser, Ms. Rice assumes one of the most important foreign policy positions in the U.S. government. That job has two functions. The first is to ensure the smooth functioning of the national security apparatus, to align and coordinate positions among the bureaucracy and to see that the president is well served by debate among his principals and their deputies. In that role, she ensures that the president is informed of all pertinent sides of an issue when it is time to decide.
The second function is to advise the president on such issues. If the first role requires neutrality, the second allows her to put a thumb on the scale. In this capacity, her preference for liberal intervention matters. But she, like any good national security adviser, should be scrupulous about dividing the two roles, ensuring that the president sees alternatives even if Ms. Rice disagrees with them.
There was talk about the diminished role of women in the second Obama administration with the departure of three female Cabinet members, Ms. Clinton among them. Since then, Mr. Obama has filled the gap. Some women still complain that with 51 percent of the population, anything less than half the Cabinet posts reflects poorly on the president’s commitment to gender equality.
That is untrue and unfair. Rather, the number of women in the U.S. Cabinet and in senior administration positions dealing with national security issues should be an inspiration to other governments — and women all over the world — and a reminder that no job is off limits to them.