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Obama picks Susan Rice as national security adviser

Taps Samantha Power as UN ambassador

Left to right, UN ambassador nominee Samantha Power, President Obama, outgoing National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and incoming National Security Adviser Susan Rice, at today’s announcement.
Left to right, UN ambassador nominee Samantha Power, President Obama, outgoing National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and incoming National Security Adviser Susan Rice, at today’s announcement.(AP)

WASHINGTON — President Obama picked two longtime advisers who have been the subject of Republican criticism to help lead his foreign policy team Wednesday, naming Susan Rice as his national security adviser and nominating former Harvard professor Samantha Power as ambassador to the United Nations.

Obama reportedly had wanted to nominate Rice as his secretary of state earlier this year but shelved the plan after Republicans said they would try to stop her nomination over her characterization of the attacks on the US consulate in Libya. By naming her as national security adviser, Obama bypasses the need for Senate confirmation and gives her an influential role steps away from the Oval Office.

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Power, meanwhile, will need Senate confirmation and, given her long record of outspokenness, could face questioning about her suggestion — before she became involved in government — that the United States 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."

The appointments appeared to be those of an emboldened president, willing to wave off the criticism of his opponents. It also installs two women into prominent roles several months after Obama was criticized for appointing men to some of the most influential positions of his second term.

Rice, 48, has been a close adviser to Obama since the earliest days of his 2008 presidential bid; Power had served in his Senate office. Following the announcement on a sunny afternoon in the Rose Garden, Obama escorted them to the Oval Office and they walked away with arms wrapped around one another.

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As Obama has struggled to win congressional approval of his domestic agenda, the new foreign policy team could help him shape global issues. He is meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this weekend in California and has a trip to Germany planned later this month in which, the White House said on Wednesday, he will deliver a major speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, has been attempting to lay the groundwork for new talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.

But in one of the world's thorniest conflicts, the civil war in Syria, it is unclear whether the new team would nudge Obama into a more direct role. While Power and Rice have both argued for military intervention in the past in other global hotspots — and helped persuade Obama to join a NATO effort to topple Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy's regime — they have been more circumspect on Syria, at least publicly.

Kerry has been trying to find a negotiated solution, but he has also expressed frustrations.

"This is a very difficult process, which we come to late," Kerry said earlier this week, appearing to suggest that the Obama administration should have gotten involved earlier.

Rice, in particular, has been a lightning rod for Republican criticism, primarily for her role in explaining the attacks on a US outpost in Benghazi, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other 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.

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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.

While Obama ended up nominating Kerry to run the State Department, the president strongly defended Rice at the time, and his decision to make her national security adviser marked a personal and political commitment.

"There was no way he was going to let Republicans say Benghazi was the new Watergate and Susan Rice had to be sacrificed," said Michael O'Hanlon, director of research for the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Power started her career as a 22-year-old foreign correspondent. She covered the Balkans during the 1990s for a variety of outlets, including The Boston 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 for outlining a case that US foreign policy is rife with double standards. The United States takes action in certain cases of mass killings, she argued, but not in others.

She wrote that 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.

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She has also not been restrained in criticism of the United Nations, writing in The New Republic in 2003 that the Security Council, on which she would have a seat of power if her nomination is approved, is "anachronistic" and "undemocratic."

The numerous articles, several books, and her trademark bluntness could give Republicans plenty of material to mine as they prepare for confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. An online column in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday dubbed her foreign policy approach "Power's 'Mea Culpa' Doctrine."

The Israel-based newspaper Ha'aretz on Wednesday highlighted a video clip that showed Power in 2002 suggesting that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might require alienating the American Jewish community. She also said a solution may require investing " billions of dollars not in serving Israel's military but actually investing in the new state of Palestine."

She later distanced herself from the comments, telling Ha'aretz that she did not believe in "imposing a settlement" and the two sides "will negotiate their own peace."

But in one early sign that she could face a relatively smooth confirmation, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican and frequent critic of Obama, said he supported her nomination.

"I believe she is well-qualified for this important position and hope the Senate will move forward on her nomination as soon as possible," said McCain, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement.

Kerry praised Obama's choices on Wednesday, and was emphatic about his excitement to work with both Power, a fellow Red Sox fan, and Rice, who was once a Kerry adviser.

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But the new dynamics could also prove challenging.

Rice "will easily match Kerry in terms of perceived power," said Peter Feaver , a professor at Duke University who was on President George W. Bush's national security team. "He obviously has a department to run and status as secretary. But she is perceived to be very, very close to the president and that's the most important convention of power in the D.C. establishment."


Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.