A more pro-active US foreign policy is expected with the appointment of Susan Rice as national security advisor, the nomination of Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations and the awaited nomination of career Ambassador Anne Patterson as Assistant Secretary of State.
The three women promise -in their very different roles- a bolder and more vocal stance in addressing regional challenges such as Syria and in managing the relation with Russia. They also create some balance in handling foreign policy decisions inside the administration, giving more weight to the White House and not just the State Department.
By appointing Rice to replace Tom Donilon as national security advisor, Obama is bringing foreign policy back to the center of the White House. While Donilon kept focus on Asia and was seen by many including regional officials as a manager with a quiet demeanor, Rice is his opposite on many fronts. If her tenure as UN ambassador since 2009 is any indication, it tells of a “one tough individual” as the Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin described her to PBS. Her meetings with ambassadors including Arab delegations were at times feisty, and undiplomatic. Yet her strong knowledge of the region and very close relation to the President whom she worked with since 2007, are likely to bring a more visible and vocal role on national security issues.
Similar to Rice, Samantha Power is an Obama confidante, with their ties dating back to Chicago. Power’s husband Cass Sunstein is an old friend of Obama, before the couple met on the campaign trail in 2008. Politically, Power is seen as a humanitarian interventionist and a staunch defender of the “responsibility to protect.” She also knows the UN system inside out, and has described UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon record as “disappointing.” Her book “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide” earned her a Pulitzer Prize, and she played an instrumental role in 2011 driving the US intervention in Libya. The situation in Syria, where more than 80,000 have been killed and millions displaced, will top Power’s agenda at the UN. Sources close to the nominee, say that she would favor stronger US role in Syria as long as it enjoys multilateral support and is built on humanitarian ground.
While not announced yesterday, sources tell Al-Arabiya that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is expected to be nominated as the Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs at the State Department. Laura Rozen of “Al-Monitor” first reported the news last month. Patterson is a career Ambassador who has close relations with US Secretary of State John Kerry. She helped as acting ambassador at the UN in 2005 in passing the Special Tribunal for Lebanon under Chapter VII, and later managed turbulent times for the US as ambassador in Pakistan and Egypt. Patterson is described as a strong leader, and similar to Rice and Power, is known for her bluntness and openness to different actors.
Russia and Syria
On the policy level, the appointment of Rice could steer the White House towards a more confrontational policy with Moscow. Russia had voiced its concerns last year about the potential nomination of Rice as Secretary of State, which was later withdrawn in favor of Kerry. The US Secretary of State has better relations with the Kremlin, and has been championing engagement with Russia to reach a political solution in Syria.
Rice, on the other hand, has put Russia on the spot and clashed with Churkin on the UN floor, on issues related to Syria, Sudan and Iran. As Putin becomes more assertive regionally, and pledges more military aid to the Assad regime, Rice will help in striking a balance with Kerry, and bringing a stronger US response to Moscow. Her appointment also comes two weeks ahead of Obama-Putin meeting in the Irish countryside during the G8 meeting.
The situation in Syria, however, remains to be the most complicated challenge for the Obama administration in the Middle East today. The White House and the US military have been avoiding more involvement and trying instead to contain the fighting while seeking the ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad. The regional tension, however, and the involvement of Hezbollah in the conflict is making the White House as well as the Europeans reevaluate their options. Diplomatic sources tell Al-Arabiya that if the Geneva conference fails, it will translate into the US arming, and training key vetted groups in the Syrian opposition. Washington has intensified its communication with the Supreme Military Council headed by Salim Idriss, and according to the sources has identified groups “it can work with” on the ground. The US has been also, according to sources, mulling “humanitarian corridors” as one of the options to contain the refugee crisis, and provide safe areas for the opposition. Samantha Power’s role at the UN could prove essential in lobbying for such move. It was interesting to see early support for Power coming from Republican Senator John McCain, one of the most hawkish voices inside the US on Syria.
Undoubtedly, the three new appointments inject new life into the Obama administration, and promise a more competent and coherent team in structuring and driving US foreign policy in the second term.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on US policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam