WASHINGTON—President Obama says former U.N. ambassador Susan Rice will have big shoes to fill in replacing Thomas Donilon as his national security adviser but believes she is up to the job.
Obama said Donilon had been with him since he first took office, offering “exceptional experience and insights,” and was “wistful to announce” that he would finish in the role at the beginning of July.
“I think that Tom Donilon has been one of the most effective national security advisors our country has ever had, and he’s done so without a lot of fanfare and a lot of fuss,” he said in the Rose Garden at the White House on Wednesday.
In introducing Rice, 48, as Donilon’s replacement, Obama said, “I am proud that this work will be carried on by another exemplary public servant.”
A Rhodes scholar, Rice gained her doctorate in international relations at Oxford University, winning an award for her doctoral dissertation in the field of International Relations.
“With her background as a scholar, Susan understands that there is no substitute for American leadership. She is at once passionate and pragmatic,” Obama said.
Obama noted Rice’s role in placing sanctions on Iran and North Korea, her support for citizens in African nations, particularly Sudan, and her defense of Israel.
“Susan exemplifies the finest tradition of American diplomacy and leadership,” he said.
David Steven, associate director at the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, says Rice will bring a stronger focus on Africa.
“Expect a continuation of Obama’s cautious approach to foreign policy, but don’t be surprised to see a greater push on legacy issues in Africa and on climate change if risks in Syria and Iran can be contained,” he said in an email.
Rice served as special assistant on African affairs to former President Clinton and was assistant secretary of state for Africa Affairs from 1997 to 2001.
Steven says Rice has a close working relationship with Obama that will benefit her, but some still see Benghazi as an issue.
After four years as the U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice was in line to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state but became the center of Republican ire over statements she made following a 2011 attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Rice appeared on Sunday news programs five days after the event and described the attacks as protests against an anti-Islamic video rather than a terrorist attack.
Republicans continue to question her judgment.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), tweeted Tuesday: “Judgment is key to national security matters. That alone should disqualify Susan Rice from her appointment. #benghazi #BadChoice.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, was more accepting. “I’ll make every effort” to work with Susan Rice, he tweeted.
The position of national security adviser does not require Senate approval and under Donilon, has grown not only in size, but also in influence.
According to David Rothkopf from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, National Security staff number over 370, the largest it has ever been.
He says Rice has the benefit of Obama’s trust and loyalty, but Donilon, 58, will be a tough act to follow.
It is under Donilon’s stewardship that the administration has made a generational shift from the Bush era “global war on terror” to a “less conflict dominated view of the world,” Rothkopf said, including the focus on the Asia Pacific and on renewing old alliances while forging new partnerships.
“Donilon’s term for the renewed interest in Asia is ‘strategic rebalancing’—not the ‘pivot’ to Asia first used by Secretary of State Hillary,” he wrote.
Obama’s meeting in California this week with China’s leader Xi Jinping is also Donilon’s initiative.
Phillip Lohaus, national security research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, believes Rice is unlikely to exhibit the same interest.
“There’s nothing in her background that would indicate that she has the same level of interest in China, though we may see China’s activities in Africa receive more attention under her watch,” he said in an email.
Donilon is also known for working in the background. Whether Rice keeps a similar low profile remains to be seen. It’s hard to imagine she will not draw attention following Hillary Clinton’s departure, which will leave national security in the domain of three less-colorful, former U.S senators, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Lohaus says Rice is likely to bring “activist policies on genocide” but believes a “behind the scenes role” may suit her, given the controversy surrounding Benghazi.
Obama also announced Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Samantha Power as Rice’s replacement at the U.N. Power, a specialist in human rights and genocide is also a former a member of Obama’s National Security Staff and a key figure in shaping Obama’s policies on human rights.
Steven warned that Power’s position, which must be approved by the Senate, could be contentious.
“Power could find herself embroiled on yet another confirmation battle given growing Obama administration determination to push back on Senate obstructionism and with another battle over the filibuster looming,” he said.