Tom Donilon to step down, Susan Rice to succeed as NSA

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President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will step down, to be succeeded by UN envoy Susan Rice, the White House announced Wednesday. President Obama will nominate his former White House advisor and humanitarian expert Samantha Power to be the next US envoy to the United Nations.

The announcement comes in advance of President Obama’s first meeting with China’s President Xi, in California later this week. Donilon has made the US “rebalance” to Asia a focus of his tenure as Obama’s top national security advisor, and traveled to China late last month to discuss the agenda.

The Back Channel reported May 3rd that Donilon was expected to step down this summer, several months earlier than previous reports had suggested. Among his considerations, associates said, was that he had been doing this for over four long years, and family medical issues. (Sources say that Donilon’s wife Catherine Russell, former chief of staff to the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, is recovering from a medical issue. Obama earlier this spring nominated her to be his next ambassador at large for global women’s issues.)

White House associates say Rice and Power, like Donilon, are trusted Obama advisors who have been in his inner circle of national security confidants going back to his 2008 presidential campaign. As such, sources anticipated a relatively smooth transition and a good deal of continuity on major foreign policy issues.

“I think the interesting thing about this transition is it’s clearly been planned for a long time,” former White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel Wednesday. “It’s not a shake up. It’s a transition in which Susan and Sam can hit the ground running because they have been doing it for four years.”

“The key to a successful national security adviser is having the President's trust,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told the Back Channel Wednesday. “That is what made Donilon such a power player and the same will be true of Rice, who has long been close to Obama.”

It remains to be seen if the elevation of Power to the UN and Rice's move to the White House will shift the Obama administration's thinking towards greater Syria intervention, given their reported roles inside the Obama inter-agency debate advocating for NATO intervention in Libya, and Power’s expertise in humanitarian intervention and as the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide.

“Power and Rice are strong and principled advocates of atrocity prevention, but are not the irresponsible liberal interventionists often portrayed,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who advised the Obama 2008 campaign on foreign policy said Wednesday. “They are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn't expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”

“My sense is, everyone in the government, including Susan and Sam, is going to keep pushing for a better outcome in Syria,” Vietor said. “No one is satisfied with the outcome on the ground.”

“It’s wrong to assume that means military intervention,” he added. “We have a lot of considerations to work through. What you have got are people who have been in the government who understand the role that US diplomatic leverage and military power plays, and how that can often be the single most important thing we’ve got. So it’s certainly a significant set of changes. But it remains to be seen what it leads to in Syria.”

Donilon had been looking for the right time to announce his departure, to make the transition as smooth as possible, aides said. “Tom been thinking about this for a long time,” Vietor said. Rice and Donilon will work together over the next few weeks to manage the transition. Donilon is expected to depart mid-July.

While the administration's re-balance to Asia as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq were top Donilon policy priorities, his imprint as a manager of the policy process is perhaps more significant. Donilon was deeply involved in the day to day running of the inter-agency process, some say with a heavy hand, as well as discipline. Aides say he should be credited with running a national security process in which disparate views were heard and fought over internally, but where notably few high-level cabinet fights erupted publicly.

“Tom Donilon has been an outstanding national security adviser. As an inside manager of the President's national security policy process, Tom succeeded in leading a collaborative and insightful process in which all players – from top to bottom – worked together rather than against each other,” Ivo Daalder, outgoing US ambassador to NATO and a friend of Donilon, said.

“It's a feat very few of his predecessors were able to accomplish,” continued Daalder, who is co-author of one of the defintive studies on the role of the national security advisor, In the Shadow of the Oval Office. “He truly managed a 'no drama' process – one that produced very effective advice for the President and ensured smooth implementation of the President's decisions.” Continue reading

NEA

Diplomatic sources say they believe that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is again the Obama administration’s leading choice to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs nominee, but say she wasn’t anxious to come back to Washington.

In the unusually long second term transition shuffle, the rumor mill on top contenders to head the NEA bureau has cycled through a list that had Patterson at the top of the list a couple months ago, and also includes US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, among others. Most recently, some in the bureau wagered Beecroft would  get tapped. But in the past few days, several former senior US officials and diplomats say  they believe Patterson has returned to the top of the list yet again, for a few reasons, despite her rumored reluctance to come back from the field. Continue reading

Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer

Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

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Roundup: Obama to dine with Miss Israel; Iran's man in Iraq

Roundup: Bibi's all male Octet, women lead Knesset opposition

(Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, AFP/Getty.)

  • Mazal Mualem: Women dominate opposition bloc in new Israeli Knesset.
  • Akiva Eldar: Bibi’s kitchen cabinet “Octet” has not a single woman.
  • Shlomi Eldar on Arab women in Israel.
  • Palestinian rights activist Shireen Issawi on her mother.
  • US withdraws award to Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim amid investigation of anti-Semitic tweets, she had said account hacked.
  • Peter Beinart: The left gives Hamas a pass on misogyny.
  • Libya women face Islamist rise since Gadhafi fall.
  • From our Middle East women trailblazers slideshow: Above photo, Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh spent a large part of her early career defending abused mothers and children, activists and journalists. In 2010, she was arrested, imprisoned and banned from practicing law. In 2011, she went on hunger strike after her daughter was issued a travel ban. The government eventually succumbed. Some of her most famous clients include Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and journalist Isa Saharkhiz.(Arash Ashourinia/AFP/Getty Images)
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Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.) Continue reading

Benghazi panel: Security at US outpost ‘grossly inadequate’


The head of State Department diplomatic security resigned Wednesday, in the wake of an investigation by a panel looking into the September 11, 2012 killing of four US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya.

The State Department said Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell has resigned, and three other officials have been relieved of their current duties. “All four individuals have been placed on administrative leave pending further action,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Veteran US diplomat Thomas Pickering, who chaired the independent Accountability Review Board (.pdf), said Wednesday that State Department security personnel were “heroic” in their actions after the US compound in Benghazi came under attack, but that security preparations at the facility were “grossly inadequate.”

“They did their best that they possibly could with what they had, but what they had was not enough,” Pickering told journalists at a briefing at the State Department Wednesday.

“Security posture at the Special Mission compound was inadequate for the threat environment in Benghazi, and in fact, grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place that night,” retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as vice chair of the ARB review, told journalists.

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Israel envoy: If Hamas stands down, we will stand down

Israel’s envoy to the United States said Friday that Israel is not looking to escalate the conflict with Hamas, but that if Hamas continues to launch rocket fire at  Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it would consider that an escalation and respond in kind.

“If they stand down, we will stand down,” Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told journalists on a call arranged by The Israel Project Friday “We are not looking to escalate.”

“The rocket fire on Tel Aviv, … and Jerusalem is an escalation,” Oren said, referring to Hamas rocket fire that landed in both cities today without causing casualties or much damage, aside from psychologically, he said. Further rocket attacks on major Israeli population centers “would be an escalation and we would respond accordingly.”

Oren declined to say if Israel would launch a ground invasion if further such rocket attacks on major Israeli cities continue. “I am just going to say that we will take all and every means to defend our citizens.”

Oren said Israel had been largely successful in targeting Hamas’ long range rocket supply, although some remain, in the three-day old Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense. The major concern now remains Hamas’ stockpile of short and medium range rockets, with a range from 7 to 50km, he estimated. A Syrian-provided 50km range rocket is one that  Oren cited as responsible for the killing of three Israeli civilians in Kiryat Malachi on Thursday.

Oren also said the Israel is encountering an increased flow of arms into Gaza  from Libya, as well as from Sudan via the lawless Egyptian Sinai. Continue reading

Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

Friday links: Abbas not seeking right of return, US Syria plan faces resistance