WASHINGTON – President Obama on Wednesday announced a major shakeup of his foreign policy team by elevating two longtime advisers who have been the subject of Republican criticism, naming Susan Rice as his national security adviser and former Harvard professor Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations.
Obama reportedly had wanted to name Rice as his Secretary of State but shelved the plan after Republicans said they would try to stop her nomination. By naming her as national security adviser, Obama bypasses the need for Senate confirmation.
Power, meanwhile, will need Senate confirmation and, given her long record of outspokenness, could face questioning about her suggestion that the United State apologize for its “crimes.’’ But she could win Republican support from those who admire her calls for a more activist foreign policy.
“I could not be prouder of these three individuals,’’ Obama said, following a tribute to Rice, Power, and outgoing national security adviser Tom Donilon. “Not only their intelligence, not only their savvy, but their integrity and their heart.’’
On a sunny afternoon in the Rose Garden, Rice and Power said they were honored to accept their new roles.
“I’m deeply grateful for your enduring confidence in me,’’ Rice said, hinting at Obama’s strident defense of her during months of criticism.
“The question of what the United Nations can accomplish for the world and for the United States remains a pressing one,’’ Power said. “I have seen UN aid workers enduring shellfire to deliver food to the people of Sudan. Yet I’ve also seen UN peacekeepers fail to protect the people of Bosnia.’’
The appointments mark an emboldened president, willing to shirk off the criticism of his opponents. It also instills two women into prominent administration roles several months after Obama was criticized for appointing men to some of the most influential positions. Rice and Power departed with arms around each other.
Power, 42, has a lengthy record for Republicans to mine as they prepare for confirmation hearings. She has written numerous articles and several books on foreign policy, and is known for her bluntness.
Power rose to prominence as a journalist, starting her career as a 22-year-old foreign correspondent. She covered the Balkans during the 1990s for a variety of outlets, including the Globe. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide’’ which examined the US reluctance to condemn mass atrocities as genocide.
The book drew controversy in some circles for outlining a case that the United States foreign policy is rife with double standards. The United States takes action in certain cases of mass killings, she argues, but not in others. In comments bound to incitethose who subscribe to a more hawkish foreign policy, she said the United States needs to own up to its role in past genocides.
“We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, permitted by the United States,’’ she wrote. She noted that former German chancellor Willy Brandt once got down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto.
“His gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors, but it was also cathartic for Germany,’’ she wrote. “Would such an approach be futile for the United States?’’
She has also not been restrained on criticism of the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, or the United Nations itself.
“The U.N. Security Council is anachronistic, undemocratic, and consists of countries that lack the standing to be considered good faith arbiters of how to balance the stability against democracy, peace against justice, and security against human rights,’’ she wrote in the New Republic in 2003.
Critics on Wednesday morning, even before Power was officially nominated, were already seizing on some of her past comments.
“I don’t know about you, but it might be helpful to have someone rep’ing America at UN who doesn’t think we are the source of world’s ills,’’ tweeted Keith Urbahn
, a former chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
David Feith, whose father, Douglas, was in President George W. Bush’s administration and had an influential role in the leadup to the Iraq War, dubbed it in the Wall Street Journal “Power’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Doctrine.’’
Power was born in Dublin and spent the first nine years of her life in Ireland before her family moved to Pittsburgh. She recounted on Wednesday arriving wearing a red, white, and blue shirt and quickly trying to stifle her Irish accent.
“For the next three months, I came home from school every day… and I sat in front of mirrors for hours straining to drop my brogue so that I, too, could quickly speak and be American,’’ Power said.
She later graduated from high school in Atlanta before going to Yale University. She once played basketball with George Clooney. The Daily Beast once called her “the femme fatale of the humanitarian assistance world.’’
Esquire in 2009 dubbed Power and her husband – Harvard law school professor Cass Sunstein– a “Fun Couple of the 21st Century.’’ (They met on Obama’s 2008 campaign, and started dating during the Iowa caucuses; the article featured the couple, dressed in all white, holding rackets on a squash court).
Power also drew controversy during Obama’s 2008 campaign when she told a reporter from a Scottish newspaper that she thought then-senator Hillary Clinton was a “monster.’’ Power, who thought the comment was off the record, resigned from the Obama campaign as a result.
But after the election, Power was appointed as senior director for multilateral affairs at the National Security Council. The White House announced in February that she would leave that post to “spend some well deserved time’’ with her husband and their two small children, a three-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter.
“While she is likely to return to the administration,’’ spokesman Tommy Vietor said at the time, “no decisions have been made on her next steps.’’
Rice has been a lightning rod for Republican criticism for her role in explaining the attacks on a US outpost in Benghazi, in which four Americans were killed. Republicans charge that she misled the public about the attacks, while her defenders say she was simply summarizing talking points that had been put together by intelligence officials.
Rice was a top choice to become Obama’s secretary of state before she withdrew amid the criticism and what was sure to be an intense confirmation battle.
Obama then nominated John Kerry to the key post. The former Massachusetts senator, a chosen pick of his former colleagues, sailed through the confirmation process.
Power was a leading voice in US military intervention in the Libyan conflict, which later led to the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. She has largely been supportive of Obama’s more cautious approach in Syria.
‘’When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk,’’ Power wrote in her book, ‘’it has a duty to act.’’
Republicans were more restrained in their immediate responses to Obama’s choices.
Senator John McCain, a chief critic of Obama’s foreign policy decisions tweeted, “Obviously I disagree w/ POTUS appointment of Susan Rice as Nat’l Security Adviser, but I’ll make every effort to work w/ her on imp’t issues.’’
Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, said in an interview that he didn’t anticipate major shifts in policy. He said that while he doesn’t know much about Power, he doesn’t see major impediments.
“Susan Rice has been in her position for a long time. It’s a move where she’ll still have the president’s ear,’’ Flake said. “For the most part, people here believe the president deserves to have his people in positions that he finds important.’’