The White House announced today that Ambassador Susan Rice will replace outgoing National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. The Cabinet-level post, which does not require Senate confirmation, chairs the National Security Council, coordinates interagency policy on matters of national security, and serves, in many cases, as the President's personal representative on foreign policy.
After withdrawing her name from consideration for Secretary of State following withering criticism over the Benghazi scandal, Ambassador Rice now takes up a position that arguably rivals the Secretary of State in terms of scope, influence, and authority. The NSA, a position inaugurated by the Truman administration in the retooling of America’s foreign policy apparatus after the Second World War, is, like many other high-level executive posts, not mentioned in the Constitution. Its powers and responsibilities largely depending upon the internal relationships and organizational structures of each administration.
The national security advisor was a relatively modest post until President Nixon elevated a little-known Harvard academic named Henry Kissinger to the position in 1969. Kissinger overhauled the position's prerogatives and responsibilities, turning the National Security Council into the seat of America's foreign policy apparatus, a bureaucratic power-play that put foreign policy more in the hands of the White House while also ruffling feathers in Foggy Bottom. It has been said that the only time that the secretary of state and the national security advisor got along was when Henry Kissinger briefly occupied both posts during the Ford administration.
Ambassador Rice, whose meteoric rise in the State Department was only blocked by her misstatements on Sunday talk shows, will now occupy the position that at once mirrors the Secretary of State while competing with it. In the Obama administration, the NSA post has been occupied largely by Obama loyalists whose largest assets are their relationship to the President, not their foreign policy credentials, while secretaries of state have been national figures outside of the Obama circle. Outgoing NSA Tom Donilon, whose tenure has been marked by a resistance to involvement in smaller conflicts while shifting defense policy towards Asia, was largely a lawyer and political staffer before shifting to security policy, with a stint lobbying for Fannie Mae. Although Ambassador Rice's long career in foreign policy gives her indubitable credentials, few Americans can point to her accomplishments as ambassador to the United Nations, her reputation largely coming from her role in Benghazi.
Her appointment to serve as the national security advisor tells us less about any new direction the Obama administration is taking foreign policy than it does about how the Obama White House works, a place largely run on the basis of personal relationships, where your authority is chiefly derived by your relationship with the president. After six years of partisan gridlock, the Obama administration is no longer the transformative, "best and the brightest" White House that it was trying to be in 2008. Although President Obama began his first term with a "Team of Rivals" from across country, picked largely because of their credentials, and a policy strategy that depended largely on cooperation from Congress, we have seen an administration shift towards loyalty in terms of its key internal positions and executive authority when it comes to enacting policy proposals. Ambassador Rice's appointment is just one more sign that the White House is going to be playing it close for the next three years.