There will be unsurprising, but deserved criticism of President Obama for appointing Susan Rice to be his next national-security adviser. The administration has chosen damaged goods. Rice’s exact role in, and level of knowledge about, the Benghazi scandal has still to be determined by congressional investigators, but her main claim to fame was to venture onto national television to sell a story about the death of a U.S. ambassador and other American officials that was false.
But the more important story is that Rice’s appointment is part of a broader theme to Obama’s second term. Once again, the president has chosen a mediocre political devotee as either a reward for past service or to help defend the castle walls during a combative second term. Past presidents had more confidence to choose significant thinkers on foreign policy for the job. JFK chose McGeorge Bundy; LBJ had W. W. Rostow, Nixon had Kissinger, Ford had Scowcroft, Carter had Brzezinski, and Reagan started with Allen and Clark, then got into trouble with McFarlane and Poindexter, but then chose Powell and Carlucci. Clinton had Berger and Lake, Bush had Rice and Hadley. These officials had thought about foreign affairs and national security for decades and had contributed to important and valuable schools of thought on the future of American national security.
Place Rice next to those figures. Putting aside her flawed service as U.N. ambassador, Rice has done, said, and written almost nothing to distinguish her as an influential voice in foreign policy, either within the Democratic party or outside of it. The highest profile act of her career in the Clinton State Department was to support standing by during the Rwandan genocide — one of the great tragedies of the Clinton years — because of concern over the effect of an intervention on the 1994 midterm elections.
Choosing a committed loyalist despite her role in one of the administration’s biggest scandals shows that the president has little interest in cooperating with the opposition party on the issues where bipartisanship is most important: national security and foreign affairs. Obama has given Republicans the separation-of-powers equivalent of the bird. But it also shows that Obama has no hopes for a second-term agenda in national security other than playing partisan defense and reacting to events abroad. Obama may well get his oft-invoked change, but it will be dictated by the decisions of others.