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Susan Rice's Benghazi sacrifice pushes Obama confidante to greater heights
Susan Rice will replace US national security adviser Tom Donilon.
The redemption of Susan Rice, President Obama's next national security adviser, advances a recent institutional trend in US foreign policy: jobs that don't require Senate approval are often more powerful than the ones that do.
Rice, the close Obama confidante and United Nations ambassador, became congressional Republicans' scapegoat in the Benghazi affair after she incorrectly told TV chat shows that the deadly September assault on the US consulate resulted from a protest over a YouTube video. Rice cautioned her statement that the facts were not fully known at the time of her appearances, but the damage was done. The resulting scandal prevented Rice from becoming Obama's second-term secretary of state.
It ended up benefiting her. Later on Wednesday, Obama will announce that Rice will replace national security adviser Tom Donilon. The job may not have been Rice's first choice, but it is the more powerful one.
At the White House, where the national security adviser works, Rice will command no budgets and run no agency. But she will be responsible for something more central to US foreign and national-security policies: co-ordinating the interaction between the various cabinet agencies to forge an unified agenda – and acting as the chief proxy on foreign policy for the president of the United States.
The national security adviser is not formally more powerful than every department in the US foreign policy apparatus. He or she cannot order troops into battle; cannot manage budgets that eclipse those of domestic agencies; cannot release malicious software that ends up damaging the sensitive equipment of foreign adversaries. But the national security adviser channels the wishes of the president at the meetings where such decisions are reached. In the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, the White House is the place where US foreign policy comes into existence.
The national security adviser also has a crucial advantage over his or her colleagues who run cabinet agencies and departments. The Senate has no influence over the appointment. He or she cannot be blocked from reaching the job, nor can presidential opponents in the Senate turn his or her confirmation hearings into high-profile forums to attack the administration, as occurred with defense secretary Chuck Hagel. Nor, absent truly exceptional circumstances, does the national security adviser have to testify to Congress about his or her performance on the job.
Perhaps most ironically for Rice's situation, the rise of the national security adviser has eclipsed the role of secretary of state. Over the years, the national security adviser, and even his or her staff, has increasingly played a large diplomatic role, a trend begun when Henry Kissinger occupied both national security adviser and secretary of state jobs simultaneously. Foreign leaders and their aides can wonder whether the secretary of state speaks with the president's voice: Colin Powell, for instance, was famously out of sync with the foreign policy of President George W Bush. No foreign capital has that worry about the national security adviser.
That's why it was Donilon, and not secretary of state John Kerry, who negotiated the upcoming California meeting of Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping. It is also why former White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan was Obama's chosen manager of the sensitive relationship with Yemen, increasingly a centerpiece of his shadow wars against al-Qaida. In Washington, as in foreign capitals, secretary of state is the more prestigious job, a vestige of an era when grand strategy began and was managed out of Foggy Bottom. But that era has largely passed: US foreign policy begins at the White House, and its most powerful implementer is the Defense Department, whose budget is an order of magnitude larger than the State Department's.
Speaking of Brennan, he was another example of the trend Rice continues. In 2008, Obama wanted to appoint Brennan, a close campaign aide, as his first CIA director. But liberal critics – including now-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald – highlighted statements that Brennan made on television shows that seemed to excuse CIA torture. Brennan withdrew his nomination before the Senate could consider it and opposition could coalesce – and Obama instead appointed him to a broad portfolio in the White House designing, co-ordinating and managing intelligence, counter-terrorism and homeland-security policies. Brennan presided over the drone strikes that have come to define Obama's counter-terrorism efforts, even selecting targets to kill – an extraordinary power for a position unaccountable to the legislature.
This institutional shift in foreign policy and national security undermines the very reason why the constitution granted the Senate an "advise and consent" role over cabinet appointments. The idea, and long-standing American tradition, is to allow the people, through their elected legislative representatives, a measure of influence over the foreign policies conducted in their name – an area where the president's institutional powers are often at their apex. But entrenched partisan acrimony has convinced presidents of both parties that the easier course is to circumvent the Senate and vest power in their relatively unaccountable staffs.
Last year, Rice lambasted that acrimony when she withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state. "If nominated," she wrote to Obama in December, "I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities." Ironically, that partisan outcry over Benghazi ended up ensuring today that Rice will rise to greater heights of power.