President Barack Obama's appointment of Susan Rice as his national security adviser, and of Samantha Power as her replacement as ambassador to the United Nations, is being heralded by the media as a bold move. But it's not likely to change Obama's foreign policy very much.
First of all, by this point in an administration nearly all policy is set, and that is particularly true when so much of the management and decision-making has been made by the president himself. Indeed, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough was deputy national security adviser in the first term and will continue to be a de facto national security adviser of last resort for Obama.
Second, to the extent that second-term appointments may affect the course of the administration, the ones that seem to matter most are John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel to run the Department of Defense. The reason is simple: There is no group that senators trust and respect more than other senators. That has set up a remarkable power center in this administration, as the top four decision-makers for the first time in modern history are all former senators and all know each other from their service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Kerry and Hagel will be responsible for hashing out the hard decisions to come, the biggest one being whether to use military power in Syria and Iran. I doubt that the presence of Rice and Power instead of Rice and the man she's replacing, Tom Donilon, will change things much when it comes to deciding whether or not to launch a new war in the Middle East to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Similarly, the political fallout from an Israeli decision to attack Iran will be at the forefront of America’s posture if the Israelis end up making such a fateful choice. Here again, Obama, a former senator himself, is likely to continue to rely on his fellow politicians—Biden, then Hagel and then Kerry—in this area.
The third reason not to expect much change in the Obama foreign policy is that most of the hard choices have already been made. For better or worse, Washington chose to leave Iraq without a residual force in place, to speed up the withdrawal of tens of thousands of troops from Afghanistan right after launching a troop surge, and to avoid, seemingly at all costs, the involvement of the U.S. in the Syrian civil war that has become the biggest Middle East crisis in a generation. Those decisions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria are the ones that will define the Obama term.
That is not to say that China and Russia are second-tier issues. But the U.S.'s China policy has been pretty stable from the first President Bush through President Clinton and the second President Bush. Obama basically picked up the theme of engaging China and minimizing the risk of conflict with this rising great power. Even the much-hyped pivot or rebalancing toward Asia is, at this point, more evolutionary than revolutionary. And on Russia, whatever hopes the Obama team might have had in the reset with Moscow have evaporated with the return of Vladimir Putin and his brand of harsh anti-American policy making. Yes, there will be cooperation on terrorism and some minimal progress on arms control, but Moscow and Washington are not likely to have a real breakthrough with Putin in charge.
To the extent that Rice and Power change anything, it is the heightening of the anti-Iraq war mindset that Obama popularized during his 2008 campaign. That mindset has become myopia in the case of Syria. Although potential U.S. involvement on the side of the Syrian opposition would look nothing like the Iraq war, the Obama team continues to define the problem as if Syria were Iraq and the proponents of intervention were Paul Wolfowitz–style neoconservatives. Nothing could be further from the truth, as America’s involvement would be welcome by both the opposition and most of the regional powers (and unlike in Iraq, the U.S. would not be responsible for starting the war and devastating the country). But the presence of Rice and Power is more likely to lock in that misreading of a potential Syrian intervention rather than correct it.
More generally, the American failure to intervene even in a minor way in Syria is likely to haunt the U.S. as an error of omission almost as big as the Iraq war was an error of commission by the Bush administration. Along with the withdrawal from Iraq and the consequential loss of leverage with the Iraqi government, the absence of U.S. leadership on Syria has made Washington almost a minor actor in the greater Middle East. This past week’s reports that China may turn out to be the big winner in the Iraq oil sweepstakes is a bitter irony that demonstrates America’s apparent irrelevance to the Baghdad government as well as anything could.
It is hard to imagine that this White House personnel shuffle is going to change the president’s seemingly firm decision to scale back America’s commitments in the world, downgrade our relations with key European allies, and focus most of the foreign policy attention that is left to managing the always important Chinese account. Since neither Rice nor Power have much experience as Asia hands, that means Kerry and Biden, both of whom have been meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials for decades, will play the major roles on China.
All in all, while personnel matters a lot in Washington, in the rest of the world this personnel shift is likely to be seen as interesting but not particularly consequential. Far more important are the threshold questions of: What will it take to cause the U.S. to intervene in Syria, now that the war is spreading into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and could spark a frightening regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites? And will the U.S. roll the historic dice and attack Iran as its nuclear weapons capability emerges? And finally, will the U.S. have the wherewithal to implement the rebalancing of forces and attention from Europe and the Middle East to Asia in such a way that ten to twenty years from now Washington remains Asia’s most important power rather than ceding that role and responsibility to China?