As UN ambassador Susan Rice prepares to succeed Tom Donilon as U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, much of the initial press analysis has been misdirected. Commenters have zeroed in on her confrontation last year with congressional Republicans over the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which effectively sidelined her as a candidate to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. The implication is that that debacle will severely undermine her capacity to get things done in Washington. Rice will doubtless take steps to mend fences with her critics on Capitol Hill. But what determines her effectiveness in the end will not be her dealings with senators -- the national security adviser does not require confirmation and seldom appears before congressional committees. Rather, it will be how she manages relationships within the executive branch.
Rice will join an operation that has been running quite well. By contrast, when Donilon replaced James Jones as national security adviser in the fall of 2010, many in the foreign policy community breathed a sigh of relief. Jones had been a poor fit for the position; Donilon was an experienced staff manager who had been serving the president well as deputy national security adviser. His appointment did prove a wise one. Donilon was not a grand policy conceptualizer in the mode of Henry Kissinger under President Richard Nixon or Zbigniew Brzezinski serving President Jimmy Carter. Some believed that Obama needed a Kissinger or Brzezinski to guide him, but this president has always had an unusually clear sense of what he wanted to do -- and not to do -- in the world. He is also, to a striking degree, his own process manager. Donilon worked indefatigably within these substantive and procedural constraints, seeing his role as supporting Obama and connecting him to key sources of information and advice. He stayed on top of the issues and kept track of who within the administration was doing and advocating what. On thorny matters such as the bloody war in Syria, he demanded that advocates of deeper engagement present a credible way out before his country got too far in. They did not, and the United States stayed away. For this and for Donilon’s overall pragmatic and effective approach, history will likely smile on his tenure.
In choosing Rice to succeed Donilon, Obama has promoted a talented senior administration official with whom he has a long-established personal relationship. That is good, since she will be working more closely with the president, day-to-day, than any other foreign policy adviser. Maintaining and deepening that relationship will be Rice’s bedrock responsibility, since that bond will be the foundation of all that she goes on to achieve. Beyond that, however, she faces a basic choice. Will she give priority to the essential National Security Council (NSC) role of overseeing and managing the foreign policy process? Or will she, like some of her most prominent predecessors, emphasize being an influential policy adviser, employing her closeness to the president to push policy in her preferred direction?
She will inevitably do some of both -- Obama will want to know her views, and she will provide them. But to be successful, she will need to be more Donilon than Brzezinski, downplaying her own policy proclivities and focusing on building relationships: on winning the confidence not just of the president but of the other senior foreign policy players as well.