Susan Rice to Serve as New 'Point Guard' for Obama's Home Stretch

Rwanda genocide to shape former U.N. ambassador's approach to top security role.

(Charles Dharapak/AP)

President Barack Obama stands with UN Ambassador Susan Rice, his choice to be his next National Security Adviser, as current National Security Adviser.

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Susan Rice is back. The president's much assailed nominee for secretary of state has formally taken on a new position back in the White House, following a Rose Garden announcement from Barack Obama that she would serve as National Security adviser.

The appointment comes at a key point in Obama's presidency as he sets his sights on the finish line for his second term in office. Selecting the U.N. ambassador for this position rounds out a series of appointments to key positions around Obama: Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel all served with Obama as senators on the Foreign Relations Committee. Rice, who holds a cabinet-level position as ambassador, also served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Kerry during his 2004 campaign for president, bringing yet another familiar face into the closest circles of the West Wing.

The National Security adviser traditionally acts as a spokesperson or broker on behalf of other senior officials tasked with national security, requiring a close and candid relationship with the commander in chief. That slate will be full in the coming years, as the U.S. draws down from Afghanistan – after what will be a 13-year war – and shifts its focus to Asia. It will also have to address pressing issues that pop up, such as cybersecurity or the mounting death toll in Syria.

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Previous NSAs who have become the stuff of lore include Brent Scowcroft, a storied military officer who championed many of the chief foreign policy initiatives during the George H. W. Bush and Gerald Ford presidencies, and Henry Kissinger who brokered relations with the Soviet Union and China.

Rice previously served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration when it chose not to take direct action to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She subsequently said, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required," reports Time magazine.

 

A former colleague says that crisis will shape her approach to her new role.

"Susan Rice will certainly remember and be influenced by that statement," says Karl Inderfurth, a former U.S. ambassador and senior official at the State Department, who worked closely with Rice during her term on the NSC. "But she also knows she is working for a president who is very cautious about involving America in another foreign intervention where we do not have the ability to foresee with some certainty what the consequences will be of our involvement."

Obama has distanced himself from direct action in Syria since saying that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line." He and other senior Executive Branch officials have called instead for more information on the likely use of these weapons by the Syrian regime.

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"Every effort will be made to head off such crises in the future and to deal with the current ones like Syria," adds Inderfurth of the roughly 80,000 people who have died there. "To find some way to influence what is taking place, but also being very cautious and hardheaded about what we can actually accomplish."

Rice would have learned the reality of that approach while serving as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., which she began in January 2009, Inderfurth says.

Obama's selection also follows a tradition among presidents of choosing close, personal advisers going into the home stretch of the second term. President George W. Bush had Condoleeza Rice as NSA for his first time in office, before turning the reins over to Stephen Hadley in 2005, who had been a close adviser to the president since his campaigns.

"It is not surprising at all," Inderfurth says of the nomination. "She is as close to the president as any other of his advisers on foreign policy. She has been with him during his campaign, his first four years, and it was very clear that she was all-in for Obama after eight years in office."