Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

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Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions

The White House on Tuesday met with a small group of Jewish leaders as part of an intensifying effort to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions it fears could derail negotiations with Iran on a possible nuclear deal.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes briefed leaders from the Jewish groups on the Iran negotiations to date.

“Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” National Security Staff spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told A-Monitor Tuesday.  “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.  The meeting was constructive and we look forward to continuing these discussions going forward.”

“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” a statement from the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”

Participants in the off record discussion, which was first reported by JTA, included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC, the statement said.

The Obama administration has been waging a more vigorous effort to try to push back against new Iran sanctions legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking committee, arguing there should be a pause in new sanctions through the fall, while maintaining existing major oil and banking sanctions, to give momentum to negotiations and test if Iran is serious about making a nuclear compromise. The administration wants a “pause” on new sanctions until January to try to come to closure on a possible confidence building measure, and they feel new sanctions now could derail that effort, sources briefed on the discussions said.

As part of that effort, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Sherman, the lead US negotiator, have been doing classified briefings on the Hill this week, sources said. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are due to brief Senators on Iran in closed session on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently argued that the only acceptable deal with Iran is one that would permit no enrichment and zero centrifuges. Current and former American officials and even some former Israeli officials contend that a zero enrichment deal is unachievable, and wonder if Netanyahu intends to try to spoil a possible deal that could increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to have potential nuclear breakout capability.

A good if imperfect negotiated solution is superior to the alternative options available, former top State Department Iran nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn argued in a paper delivered in Israel last week, noting increased pressure from the US now could fracture the international community and push Iran to escalate by increasing its enrichment activities.

“At a minimum, the Israelis want us to bargain very hard,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday. “And I think they see their tough position as a way of strengthening our resolve. But whether at the end of the day they would be content with less than [the] maximalist approach is hard to tell at this point.”

The Obama “administration wants to test Iranian willingness to accept significant constraints on its nuclear program in order to get relief from sanctions,” Einhorn said. “And so it’s prepared to [see]… how far they are prepared to go to meet US concerns.”

President Obama “has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program,” Secretary Kerry told the Ploughshares Fund  Monday.   Continue reading

Appointments: Beers may go to White House, Kaidanow for State CT

With the White House nomination of Jeh Johnson to be Secretary of Homeland Security, multiple administration sources say they expect acting DHS Secretary Rand Beers to join the National Security/White House staff as a senior advisor on counterterrorism issues to National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Beers, confirmed as DHS Undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate in 2009, has served since September as acting DHS Secretary since the departure of Janet Napolitano to head the University of California, and before that, as acting deputy Secretary, after the departure of Jane Holl Lute last May. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel.

Beers worked closely with Rice as a foreign policy and intelligence advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and served as co-chair of the Obama/Biden DHS Transition team. He previously served in the NSC of four presidential administrations, and in multiple senior roles in the State Department, including as assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement and counter-terrorism coordinator. A former Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, Beers resigned from the Bush NSC in March 2003, coinciding with the US invasion of Iraq, and later served as foreign policy advisor to John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

The White House declined to comment, saying they have no new appointments to announce at this time. White House sources previously said they expected Lisa Monaco to remain as the top White House advisor on counter-terrorism and intelligence issues, and it’s unclear exactly what Beers’ title will be. Associates said Beers was one of the few people in Washington who didn’t care about his title.

“When Rand was my boss, he always said there is no limit to what you can accomplish [in Washington] if you are willing to let someone else get the credit,” Heather Hurlburt, who worked with Beers at the progressive National Security Network, said Tuesday.

As the Back Channel previously reported, Rice is also bringing on Rob Malley to advise her and the NSS on Iran and Syria, sources said. The appointment, also not yet announced, is a “done deal,” but may await some final administrative work, one former official told the Back Channel Monday. Malley did not respond to queries.

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Deputy US Ambassador to Afghanistan Tina Kaidanow is expected to be nominated to be the next State Department Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, multiple officials tell the Back Channel.

Kaidanow, a former US Ambassador to Kosovo, previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and as a special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. She did not respond to a query from the Back Channel. If confirmed, Kaidanow, a career foreign service officer, will head the State CT bureau that includes senior advisors Eric Rosand and Michael Jacobson.

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Kurt Kessler, deputy counselor to the US mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, is expected to join the White House WMD coordinator shop as an Iran non-proliferation expert. Kessler, a former Middle East and Iran analyst in the State Department’s International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau and before that at the Agency, is considered one of the most knowledgeable experts on Iran’s nuclear program in the US government, associates said. He did not respond to a query.

(Photo of Rand Beers, acting Homeland Security Secretary, from his DHS biography.)

US Iran team shuffles as nuclear talks set to resume


President Obama this week nominated top White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar to be Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as the Back Channel reported in July was expected.

The promotion for Talwar, who has served since 2009 as the National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf affairs, would mark the latest departure of a key member of the U.S. Iran negotiating team as the U.S. prepares to resume P5+1 nuclear talks with the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration in the coming weeks, after a five month hiatus.

Rob Malley, a former Clinton administration NSC Middle East advisor, is expected to join the NSC, succeeding Talwar after his confirmation, as the Back Channel previously reported was under consideration. The White House declined to comment. Malley didn’t respond to a query.

But several sources suggested that Malley may not play the same role on Iran issues as Talwar, and that National Security Advisor Susan Rice would like to bring Malley to the White House to help rethink how the National Security Staff Middle East work is organized. Malley has already been informally advising the State Department on Syria from the outside, officials tell the Back Channel.

Also expected to join the NSC as a director on Gulf affairs is Elisa Catalano, Rice’s former Iran/Gulf advisor at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, and a former special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sources said they were still uncertain who from the White House might be part of the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks with Iran, led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Talwar has accompanied Sherman as the +1 to most of the political directors meetings with the Europeans and P5+1 for the past few years. Former White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore, who left the administration early this year for Harvard, was also a key member of the U.S. delegation to both the P5+1 political and technical talks with Iran, along with former State Department Iran arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, who left the administration this summer for Brookings. Sherman has selected longtime State Department nonproliferation advisor Jim Timbie to be her top Iran arms control deputy, succeeding Einhorn, officials said.

Beyond their formal functions, Talwar, Samore and Einhorn have served as key points of contact for informal consultations among the foreign diplomatic, arms control and Iran expert communities seeking to confer with the administration.

American officials are preparing with their P5+1 counterparts to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month to agree on arrangements for resuming nuclear talks with Iran. Western officials are still waiting to see what kind of response to the P5+1’s offer new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may bring to the table, when nuclear talks finally resume.

Iranian sources suggested this week that Iran might be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; cap enrichment at 5%; accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime; and sign the Additional Protocol, in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich to 5%, and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers in a past proposal.

(Photo: President Barack Obama is briefed by Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States, in the Oval Office, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Kerry, Rice brief Jewish, Arab American groups on Mideast peace talks

Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice hosted Jewish-American and Arab-American community leaders at separate meetings at the White House Thursday and Friday to try to bolster domestic support for U.S. Middle East peace-making efforts.

Also attending the meetings were new US peace envoy Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein, as well as the White House’s top Middle East strategist Phil Gordon, senior director for Middle East and North Africa Prem Kumar, and deputy national security advisor for communications Ben Rhodes, attendees told Al-Monitor.

The meetings-ostensibly off the record–come as Indyk and Lowenstein are heading back to the region to facilitate a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next week. Negotiations will be held August 14th in Jerusalem followed by a meeting in Jericho, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday.

“Obviously, they wanted to brief Jewish community leaders on their efforts with regard to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and also to appeal for the community to support their efforts,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, told the Back Channel Friday.

“I think everybody were appreciate of their efforts and commitment and motivations,” Diament continued. “Obviously, there were some difficult questions asked. But it was a very cordial and civil and substantive discussion.”

“I would say both Rice and Ben Rhodes … made a point of stating President Obama’s commitment to this agenda item and also his appreciation for what Secretary Kerry is doing,” Diament said.

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Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

The National Security Council's top advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar is expected to be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, two US officials tell Al-Monitor, although a third official said the nomination announcement is not imminent.

Talwar did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Tuesday.

A former Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for the Middle East under then Chairman Joseph Biden, and one of Biden’s closets foreign policy advisors, Talwar has served as the NSS senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states since the beginning of Obama’s first term, during which time Vice President Biden has served as the Obama administration’s point-man on Iraq.

Talwar has also been deeply engaged on US Iran policy and participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team.

The State Department political military affairs chief job, currently headed by acting Assistant Secretary Tom Kelly since the departure of Andrew Shapiro, involves decisions on U.S. arms sales and security assistance issues. Talwar has long worked on the region that accounts for the lion’s share of US arms sales and military assistance, especially in recent years, one official noted.

It’s not entirely clear who might succeed Talwar as NSS senior director for Iran and the Gulf if the nomination proceeds. But sources say new US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been a bit frustrated that several appointments were made by her predecessor Tom Donilon shortly before he left, and she would like to bring in some people who have more NSC experience.

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Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading

US presses Egypt for swift return to civilian rule, against arbitrary arrests

President Obama met with his national security team on Egypt on the July 4th holiday, as US officials consulted with allies and pressed Egyptian officials for a swift transition back to civilian rule.

US officials “have been in touch with Egyptian officials and our regional partners to convey the importance of a quick and responsible return of full authority to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible,” the State Department said. They also pressed for “a transparent political process that is inclusive of all parties and groups; avoiding any arbitrary arrests of President Morsy and his supporters; and the responsibility of all groups and parties to avoid violence.”

Secretary of State John Kerry discussed developments over the past two days with Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Emirati Foreign Minister bin Zayed, the Norwegian Foreign Minister Kai Eide, and Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiya, the State Department said Thursday.

Defense Secretary Hagel spoke with Egyptian army chief al-Sisi and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya'alon.

New US National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke with her Israeli counterpart, National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror. Continue reading

Obama statement on Egypt avoids 'coup'

President Obama refrained from declaring the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi a military coup in a statement issued Wednesday after White House consultations with his national security aides.

“No transition to democracy comes without difficulty, but in the end it must stay true to the will of the people,” Obama said in the statement.

“The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties —secular and religious, civilian and military,” he said.

Obama statement “expressing deep concern over the military's decision to remove President Morsi tracks that [U.S.] legislative definition of a coup very closely, and I can't help but think that's deliberate,” Tamara Wittes, a former senior State Department Middle East official who heads the Brookings Saban Center, wrote. “The law in place is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule — aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held.”

Meantime, Egypt's Al-Tahrir newspaper had a message for President Obama on its front page Thursday:

Top Photo: President Obama, photographed on Wednesday meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Egypt. To his left, new National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, CIA Director John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. To Obama's right, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, DNI James Clapper. Secretary of State John Kerry called into the meeting by phone, State Department officials said. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo of Al-Tahrir front page from the Newseum, posted to Twitter by @Jfdulac.

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

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