WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will name UN ambassador Susan Rice as his new national security advisor Wednesday, months after the Benghazi affair scuppered her hopes of becoming the top US diplomat.
Rice will take over from Obama’s current national security advisor Tom Donilon in July, in a shake-up of his foreign policy team that will see former aide and genocide expert Samantha Power take the top United Nations job.
The move marks a swift turnaround in fortunes for Rice, 48, who pulled out of consideration to be Obama’s second term secretary of state, a victim of the controversy over the attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
A US official said Obama would use a ceremony unveiling Rice later Wednesday to also nominate Power to replace Rice as US ambassador to the United Nations.
The decision fits Obama’s preference for promoting officials from within his political inner circle instead of outsiders and will place two women in top foreign policy jobs alongside Secretary of State John Kerry.
It also promotes two policy professionals who have wrestled with the question of when the United States should intervene in foreign conflicts to protect civilians, just as Obama tackles the Syria crisis.
Rice was part of the Clinton administration team that failed to respond to halt genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Power won the Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” which focuses on Rwanda and other mass killings, including in Cambodia and Bosnia.
Donilon took over from the president’s first national security advisor, retired general James Jones, in 2010.
He was at the center of the decision to pull US troops out of Iraq, to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year and the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Donilon has also been a key figure in China policy, masterminding Obama’s diplomatic ‘pivot’ to Asia, and recently traveled to Beijing to prepare the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to California this week.
His retirement had been expected this year though most observers expected him to wait a little longer.
Donilon has kept a low public profile but been a dominant force in the Obama administration. He is known for scrupulous preparation and driving staff hard.
Rice, who served as an assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration, has long been one of Obama’s closest foreign policy aides, dating back to his 2008 campaign.
She was widely expected to be named secretary of state to follow the departing Hillary Clinton.
But she was accused by Republicans of deliberately misleading Americans over the origins of the attack on the Benghazi mission on September 11 last year, which killed four Americans including the ambassador.
However, recently released email traffic between top administration officials shows she had no role in crafting the talking points on the attack which she used on Sunday television talk shows to argue that the assault was part of a spontaneous anti-US protest rather than a planned terrorist attack.
At the time, Obama angrily rejected “outrageous” Republican attacks on Rice, saying she had done “exemplary work” at the UN, showing “skill and professionalism and toughness and grace.”
Rice won plaudits in the White House for her work at the United Nations, lining up tough sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program but also raising eyebrows with undiplomatic language.
She is known for a robust personal style and reputedly has sharp elbows, but she will derive considerable power from her status as an ‘Obama original.”
Rice does not need to obtain Senate confirmation to serve as national security advisor, the president’s closest foreign policy aide, so any residual opposition from Republicans will not be a problem.
Some Republicans however raised concerns.
Senator Rand Paul said that Rice should not be promoted or kept in an important position.
“I really question the president’s judgment in promoting someone who was complicit to misleading the American public,” Paul told Fox News.
Power, 42, formerly served Obama as a special assistant focusing on multilateral affairs and human rights.
She will face a Senate confirmation which could bring up her comment that Hillary Clinton was “a monster.” It led to her resignation from Obama’s 2008 campaign.