Presidents and not their aides are responsible for setting the course of U.S. foreign policy, and in the case of President Barack Obama, that has been true arguably to a fault.
It was Obama who insisted, over the objections of some advisers, that Israel's settlement construction should be the focus of his first-term Middle East peace initiative. It was he who decided that the surge of troops in Afghanistan should be accompanied by a fixed withdrawal date. And it was he who rejected the advice of most of his senior national security aides last year that the United States should arm Syria's rebels.
More broadly, Obama appears to be the animating force behind what increasingly looks like a broad U.S. retreat from its longtime role as the world's "indispensable nation." In addition to shunning intervention in Syria, where what is now a devastating civil war might have been prevented, the president chose to withdraw all U.S. forces in Iraq after 2011, leaving his administration with few means to prevent the unraveling of that country's postwar democratic order. He has spoken frequently of "nation-building here at home," and of allowing allies or the United Nations to take the lead on foreign crises.
There isn't much reason to expect that a change in Obama's national security adviser will lead to a reversal of this strategy. Nevertheless, the replacement of Thomas E. Donilon with Susan E. Rice offers hope that the president will hear more advice from his inner circle in favor of an activist foreign policy. Obama is nominating Samantha Power to replace Rice as U.N. ambassador. Both women were reported to have successfully argued in favor of U.S. intervention in Libya's revolution against dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Rice, a seasoned foreign policy hand and Rhodes scholar, was particularly forceful before re-entering government in advocating international intervention to prevent genocide. In 2006, she co-authored an article on The Washington Post op-ed page advocating airstrikes to force the Sudanese government to stop its aggression in the Darfur region and accept a U.N. peacekeeping force. The article argued that "if the United States fails to gain U.N. support" for military intervention, "we should act without it." As U.N. ambassador, Rice has defended a far more timid policy with respect to Syria. But with the war rapidly worsening, Obama's muddled mix of failing diplomacy and vanishing red lines is in desperate need of a rethink.
Rice might have become secretary of state, had she not been the target of an irresponsible Republican campaign accusing her of dissembling about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. It was refreshing to see one of her critics, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pledge to "make every effort to work with her." Rice certainly merits the support of those who wish to see the United States exert leadership and promote its values.