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Holding the national security course

Jules Witcover writes that the Rice and Power appointments may signal a modest shift in the direction of human rights.

By Jules Witcover

June 7, 2013

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President Barack Obama's latest changes in his top national security team seem more a shift to a stronger emphasis on human rights than a break with his long-range determination to keep the United States out of nation-building adventurism.

His appointments of UN Ambassador Susan Rice as national security adviser and of Samantha Power, a persuasive insider human rights advocate from the National Security Council, to replace Rice at the UN suggest that shift rather than any momentous pivot.

"I think everyone understands that Susan is a fierce champion for justice and human dignity," Mr. Obama said in announcing the first appointment, "but she's also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately." As for Ms. Power, he will have an ideal spokeswoman in New York for the more humanitarian side of the Obama agenda.

Through Mr. Obama's first term and continuing into the second, conservatives have criticized his limited use of American force on behalf of the bystander victims of armed conflict. They ridiculed his decision in Libya to eschew the all-out sort of intervention seen in the Iraq fiasco.

The same critics raise the same complaints regarding the civil war in Syria. Mr. Obama has been unwilling to use armed force to intervene in the Assad regime's slaughter of an estimated 80,000 Syrian civilians beyond limited humanitarian aid to refugees and other victims.

Ms. Rice is best remembered for her hapless role as UN ambassador in insisting at first, on the basis of faulty U.S. intelligence, that last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was not a terrorist operation. The furor over that episode cost Ms. Rice prospective nomination by Mr. Obama as secretary of state; the job of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation.

Republican Sen. John McCain, who fiercely opposed Ms. Rice then, has now said he doesn't favor her in the new appointment but "will make every effort" to work with her. As for Ms. Power going to the UN, Mr. McCain has called her "well qualified" and has urged her quick confirmation.

On the basis of Ms. Rice's behavior as a member of the NSC staff under President Bill Clinton in 1994, how she weighs in on current Obama considerations of a more muscular response in Syria could be critical. After Mr. Clinton's decision not to intervene in the genocide in Rwanda then, Ms. Rice said, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such an issue then, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."

But for all of Mr. Obama's expressed concerns over what is called collateral damage in warfare, repeated in the current controversy of the American use of drone aircraft against suspected Taliban sites in Afghanistan, the issue remains a troublesome one for him.

Beyond that, the president remains committed to steer American foreign policy away from the sort of interventionism in Iraq in 2003 that brought wide international condemnation. This conditional approach was seen in the limited troop surges he ordered, tied to eventual withdrawal timelines in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the subsequent limited U.S. use of air power in Libya.

Bringing Ms. Rice into the White House as national security adviser dodges what could have been a contentious and frustrating Senate confirmation that her State Department nomination would surely have occasioned. It should bolster support from critical Democratic liberals who favor a much greater and swifter Obama response to the world's humanitarian challenges, especially now in Syria.

These latest Obama national security shifts come as the administration is under siege from Republican investigators on Capitol Hill over the IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking supposedly do-good tax exemptions, as well as for Justice Department snooping on investigating journalists.

These scandals by now have driven the Obama team into a defensive crouch as the second-term opportunities for major accomplishment steadily diminish. If these changes mark a revitalized effort to put a more humanitarian face on the Obama foreign policy, it can only be a welcome development.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.