In this season of divided politics and lowered expectations, President Obama has made two personnel decisions that will benefit U.S. foreign policy for a long time to come. I have had the honor of working and traveling the globe with Susan Rice and Samantha Power over the years, and it is clear that the president has made the right choices at the right time for these two critical national security positions – National Security Adviser and ambassador to the United Nations.
There is an old adage that you really get to know someone when traveling with them. When we worked for President Clinton, Ambassador Rice decided to go to rebel-controlled areas of South Sudan at the heights of the North/South war despite dire warnings about our security and safety. Rice and our small team spent days traveling through the bush, meeting with survivors of villages that had been burned to the ground, with recently freed slaves, with women subjected to a policy of systematic rape, with people who had almost no food because the Khartoum regime was using starvation as a weapon of war. Her heart broke repeatedly but her resolve deepened to help end the world’s second deadliest war since World War II. And she played a pivotal role in bringing that long conflict to an end from her current position in New York.
One of the trips Power and I took in 2004 was to Jerusalem and then Darfur. I saw first-hand Power’s commitment to the state of Israel and its future. Then in the war zone of Darfur at the height of the genocide, six decades after the Holocaust, we walked through entire villages that had been burned to the ground and interviewed survivors as traumatized as those who survived World War II. I saw the well of compassion that drives Power’s work and equally her thoughtfulness as we debated policy options to help end the horror. I have just returned from another visit to the Sudan/Chad border last week, and some of the more politically engaged Darfuri refugees were all eager to hear news of the role Power might play in the second term. I wish I had known the news then of her new position to share with them, to provide a little hope.
There are a few qualities that really distinguish Rice and Power for the roles they have been chosen to play. Character is first. Anyone who has worked with either or both of these public servants would agree that they possess strong ethical standards and work from a set of well-developed principles that guides their actions. Issues and crises will come and go, but having a deep well of character from which to draw is crucial in the roles they are assuming.
Second is a clear lens of strategic analysis. Both Rice and Power have spent their entire careers honing very well-developed analytical frameworks that allow them to take any policy problem and critically assess all perspectives. In the fast-moving worlds of the National Security Council or the U.N. Security Council, if one does not possess such a framework for critical analysis, the policy options that emerge would not be fully parsed and considered. The president and his national security team will benefit greatly from having consistent advice from two officials whose specialty is critical thinking under pressure.
Third is a firm grasp of U.S. interests in a rapidly evolving world. My time with Rice in the Clinton administration was like a seminar in U.S. interests from an elite professor. And Power’s work during these last four years in a job that focused on U.S. interests in multilateral institutions has deepened her own already nuanced understanding of how the U.S. can best secure its objectives multilaterally.
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John Prendergast is a Co-founder of the Enough Project, though this article reflects only his personal views.
Photo: President Barack Obama walks with Tom Donilon, Susan Rice and Samantha Power (AP).