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What Obama's Picks Say About His Foreign Policy


For more on Susan Rice and Samantha Power and the political calculations behind the president's choices, we turn to our national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. And Mara, let's start with Samantha Power. People might be familiar with her name from the White House, but tell us more about her background.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, Samantha Power actually began her career as a journalist and as a passionate human rights advocate. She went to Bosnia when she was 22 years old as a freelance war correspondent. She later won a Pulitzer Prize for her book on genocide and she has been a member of President Barack Obama's inner circle on foreign policy since 2005 when she worked on his Senate staff.

She actually had to step down from the 2008 campaign where she was an advisor after she got in trouble for referring to Hillary Clinton as a monster. She served as a human rights advisor on the National Security Council. More recently, she's been the director of the president's atrocities prevention board and you can be sure that all of her past writings and outspokenness will be reviewed at her confirmation hearings.

CORNISH: Now, what about Susan Rice? Scott Horsley just reminded us of the controversy surrounding her. Is this selection more or less a finger in the eye of Republicans?

LIASSON: Well, Republican reaction has been mixed. Senators like Bob Corker, who's the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, along with Kelly Ayotte, and Lindsey Graham and John McCain - all of who opposed Rice and that opposition led to her withdrawing her name from consideration as a successor for Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State - today, all of them said they would put their differences with her aside and work with her.

Rand Paul, on the other hand, said that he couldn't imagine promoting Susan Rice. He said she misled the public about the Benghazi attacks. But the most important point here is, as Scott just pointed out, as the national security advisor, she does not need confirmation by the Senate.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, of course, Samantha Power does need to be confirmed by the Senate. So how do you think she'll be received?

LIASSON: White House officials say they do not expect any big problems, in the end, getting Power confirmed. However, that doesn't mean that her hearings are going to go smoothly. Republicans may see her as a surrogate for Susan Rice and for Hillary Clinton, and question her aggressively about the Obama administration's foreign policy controversies, particularly Benghazi, although Power had no involvement in that issue.

But when she was a journalist, she was outspoken. She did make some provocative statements about American power and about Israel, some of which she has already disavowed, including a 2002 statement that the United States might have to intervene to broker a peace agreement in the Middle East. Conservatives have been highlighting these statements today, saying they prove that she is anti-American and anti-Israel and the White House has been pushing back pretty strongly.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney making a point in his briefing today, saying that Samantha Power was a strong friend of Israel. And in his remarks, President Obama said she's been, quote, "fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism."

CORNISH: Looking more broadly, what do these two picks tell us about President Obama's foreign policy and his second term?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, this is more of a swap than a shakeup and that tells us a lot. Once again, President Obama has reached into his small closely held circle of confidantes. This is his pattern. There are very few outsiders in the Obama inner circle and brought into the administration in the White House. Outsiders who do come in don't last very long.

I think the picks also tell us that human rights will continue to be a priority, both women are associated with this issue. And the other point is that both are women, which, as the president rounds out his second term team, adds to the diversity that he wants. Both of them are mothers with young children. Susan Rice has teenagers. Samantha Power has a baby and a toddler.

I think the other thing this tells us is that this is a White House-centric administration when it comes to foreign policy. I think Rice will continue in that tradition. White House officials tell me that they expect her to follow in the model of national security advisors in the past who act as a broker and a coordinator between the competing viewpoints from all the different foreign policy power centers in the administration, State Department, CIA and Defense.

The president makes the final decision, but she's the one who's supposed to kind of mediate the debate.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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