WASHINGTON — Praising “their integrity and their heart,” President Obama on Wednesday announced a shuffling of his top national security aides, including the departure of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the elevation of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to Donilon’s position and the nomination of longtime advisor Samantha Power to lead the U.S. mission to the UN.
During their years of service in his White House, Obama said, the three players have made “America’s values live in corners of the world that are crying out for our support and our leadership.”
Appearing in the Rose Garden with all three, Obama lauded them one by one for their ability to push not just for U.S. interests but also for such American values as democracy and human rights.
In doing so, Obama acknowledged the basic tension in his foreign policy team right now. The civil war in Syria grows more bloody by the day and yet Obama has not arrived at a strategically advantageous way to intervene that, for him, justifies the American risk involved.
Rice and Power are among those in the administration who lean toward intervention and have advocated for it in internal discussions. As Obama was preparing to make his official announcement, though, aides hastened to say that their appointments do not mean changes are in the works on the president’s policy on Syria.
Underscoring the point as he introduced Rice, who will become his top advisor on foreign policy, Obama called her a “fierce champion for justice and human dignity” who is “also mindful that we have to exercise our power wisely and deliberately.”
Rice, 48, is set to take over this summer. Her position does not require confirmation by the Senate. Rice has come under intense fire from Republicans for her role in the controversy over the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
GOP critics contend that she intentionally downplayed the role of terrorist groups during an initial round of interviews after the attack last year.
Key Republicans threatened to block her expected nomination to serve as secretary of State, but she withdrew her name from consideration. She has been an advisor to Obama since his 2008 run for the White House.
Power, 42, is also a longtime advisor. After serving in Obama’s Senate office she went on to be a special assistant to the president and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.
Her 2002 book, “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” won the Pulitzer Prize. Obama mentioned the book the first time he met Power, she said Wednesday.
“From the day I met you and you told me that you had spent a chunk of your vacation reading a long, dark book on genocide, I knew you were a different kind of leader,” she told him in front of the crowd in the Rose Garden. “And I knew I wanted to work for you.”
Power’s nomination must be confirmed by Senate.
Donilon, 58, departs after four years of service on Obama’s national security staff. He took the place of Gen. James Jones as national security advisor in 2010 and went on to help craft the administration’s policy for the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
A former chief of staff to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Donilon has been an internal advocate for turning the focus of U.S. foreign policy to Asia.
In one of his last acts in the job, Donilon will join Obama this week in a high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.