Obama’s Arrogant Appointment

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Hughes’ June 6, 2013 opinion piece as published in U.S. News & World Report.


You’ve got to hand it to him: President Obama’s appointment of his U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, to be his new national security advisor shows chutzpah!  

Obama’s administration is mired in accumulating scandals – from the Internal Revenue Service targeting his political enemies in the two years between a humiliating mid-term election drubbing and a successful re-election bid, to his attorney general’s wholesale seizure of Associated Press phone records and fingering of Fox News correspondent James Rosen as a potential violator of the Espionage Act, to the public dissembling over the Benghazi attack and its fatal consequences for an American ambassador and three others. 

For Obama to appoint to a White House post, exempt from Senate confirmation, a figure at the heart of one of these scandals — the Benghazi attack – is a bold stroke. It’s tempting to say that if Obama were as willing to take on America’s implacable enemies overseas, like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Iran’s Islamic theocracy, as he is Congressional Republicans, perhaps we’d be having a bit more luck containing the looming nuclear-weapons-in-the-hands-of-lunatics menace that we face.

But today’s appointment of the otherwise ostentatiously well-credentialed Rice brought to mind two episodes from my own White House and diplomatic experiences.

First, in George H.W. Bush’s first year as president, I received a call on a Thursday afternoon from the first floor of the West Wing, from Bob Gates, the then-deputy national security advisor. He instructed me to add to the National Security Council’s roster a career foreign service officer who would be replacing the departing head of one of the Council’s regional directorates.

The “new guy” would be reporting for duty the next Monday. The departing official was widely admired by Republicans for his work on Central America in the Reagan administration; his replacement was known, in conservative circles anyway, to be anathema to a particular Senator –  Jesse Helms.

When I went upstairs for my daily meeting with Gates, I mentioned this problem and predicted trouble – and was told that it was already a “done deal” between the national security adviser and the deputy secretary of state. “Fuhgeddaboudit!”  Besides, it was a White House staff appointment. Senators had no say.

On Monday morning, I received another call from Gates instructing me to take the expected new arrival’s name off the Council’s roster. He would not be coming. What had happened? Why the quick turn-around?  Well, only the principals know for sure, but I understood that White House Chief of Staff John Sununu’s telephone “lit up like a Christmas tree” with phone calls from Capitol Hill over the appointment of a single National Security Council staffer – orchestrated, obviously, by you know who. The “done deal” was just as quickly undone.

A few years later, the prime minister of one of the microstates to which I was accredited (as ambassador) had a sort of Cabinet crisis. For seemingly mysterious reasons, two tourism ministers – a key post in a Caribbean island government, occupied in this case by ruling party stalwarts – resigned in succession, ostensibly over their refusal to promote the prime minister’s candidates to be head and number two of that nation’s Tourism Board. 

Eventually, the prime minister took the tourism portfolio and made the appointments himself.  In time, it came to be known, as things become known in such small places, that promises had been made – specifically, a promotion —  to a lady personally close to the (married) prime minister. The promotions were necessary to fulfill the promises. Within months, after more Cabinet defections and a close no-confidence vote, he was thumped at the polls and thrown out of office.

Doubtless Susan Rice has given Obama excellent professional service – as his campaign’s top national security adviser, on the transition team and at the U.N.  It would be completely unsurprising were we ever to learn that, implicitly or explicitly, promises were made – or understood to be forthcoming – if Rice would step into the lion’s den last September, when other more directly responsible Washington officials would not, to appear on all those Sunday talk shows and repeat over and over again that tendentious and misleading account of the Benghazi attack.

With the “promotion path” to secretary of state blocked by those pesky, persnickety Senate Republicans, Obama has rewarded her with the one suitable post solely within his ability to give – a White House appointment as his national security advisor, over which the Senate has no say.

Will current Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough’s phone “light up like a Christmas tree” over Obama’s choice?  Probably not – mainly because it wouldn’t make any difference. Rice won’t be un-hired overnight.

Will Obama be pitched out of office within a few months? Certainly not. Thankfully, we don’t have a parliamentary system, and, even with grounds, impeachment is impossibly complicated, politically and procedurally, as experience has shown. But will Obama pay a price for this appointment of arrogant defiance in the midst of the scandals engulfing him? As one of his political bête-noir might put it, “You betcha!” Congressional Republicans should see to it.