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.

Brent Scowcroft, who served presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush the elder, is widely regarded as the most successful of national security advisers. Why? He was clearly someone who “inspires trust,” as the New York Times reported in 1988 when Bush named him for the position. But Scowcroft soon realized that inspiration wasn’t enough -- that trust was something that must be earned with his new set of colleagues, Secretary of State James Baker III, in particular. He found that it would take at least a year of subordinating his own preferences while he established the confidence of other senior players -- confidence that he would convey their views accurately and faithfully to the president; confidence that he would keep them “in the loop” and inform them when key decisions were being made. “If you don’t have their confidence,” he declared years later, “then the system doesn’t work, because they will go around you to get to the president and then you fracture the system.” And once he gained that faith, Scowcroft could become, selectively, a more active advocate -- as he was, in particular, in backing a military response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

Rice would do well to heed Scowcroft’s advice. In particular, she will need to build a productive relationship with the man now holding the job she once aspired to, Secretary of State John Kerry. His early months in office have suggested that Kerry is a man with a mind and priorities of his own. And he will clearly be dealing directly with the president, as indeed he should. But there will be many times when the two will need to connect but won’t be able to meet -- and may not even be able to talk on the phone. On these occasions, Rice needs to make herself the essential interlocutor, carrying information and advice from the secretary and guidance from the president. When she believes Kerry is moving in a direction Obama will not support, she will need to tell him, and have him believe her. Conversely, in areas where he has special experience and expertise, she will need to recognize and draw on it. For example, when she needs a good reading of Capitol Hill, where he served for 28 years, she may want to ask him to provide it.

Every national security adviser is different -- there is no one way to do the job. Donilon’s NSC was heavy on meetings and paper. Because of her style, Rice’s may involve less of each -- and that could be good. But building trust among the president and his senior team would be even better. If Donilon’s successor can achieve and maintain this, she is unlikely to go wrong.

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  • I.M. DESTLER is Saul I. Stern Professor at the Maryland School of Public Policy and co-author, with Ivo H. Daalder, of In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served.
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