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What the appointment of Susan Rice as Obama's NSA means for India

Washington: The shape President Obama’s second term takes may well depend on Susan Rice, his new national security adviser, who will sit in the White House as the ultimate gatekeeper to both men and ideas.

Obama named Rice to one of the most powerful positions in the American bureaucracy on Wednesday while naming another woman, Samantha Power, as his ambassador to the United Nations, a job held by Rice until now.

Rice as NSA will referee the interplay of priorities, issues and interests of various departments and help decide what reaches Obama’s desk. As a staunch loyalist, she has the ear of the president, who has defended her against attacks from the Republicans.

The bond between the two is deep. Rice, a former Clinton Administration official, came out early in 2007 to support Obama’s unlikely candidacy when most thought she would back Hillary. She helped Obama -- a foreign policy novice -- develop positions on international issues all on her own time and dime.

Rice comes to the job with a deep familiarity with India – perhaps too deep – gained over four years as the US ambassador to the United Nations where she tried to secure New Delhi’s support for various UN resolutions dealing with Libya, Iran and Syria. The Obama Administration counted on India’s support but was often frustrated to find that the best India would do was to abstain.

Susan Rice with Obama at the White House after being announced as the next NSA. AP

Susan Rice with Obama at the White House after being announced as the next NSA. AP

The process was bruising for both sides, no doubt, but as a long-time practitioner of foreign policy, Rice understands that all countries act in their self-interest. She could not dismiss outright India’s well-argued positions against military intervention in Libya.

What impressions Rice carries about India and why it voted a certain way is largely an unknown. But after India and Brazil, along with Russia, Germany and China, abstained on a resolution which formed the basis for military intervention in Libya, she said in September 2011: “It’s been a very interesting opportunity to see how they respond to the issues of the day, how they relate to us and others, how they do or don’t act consistent with their own democratic institutions and stated values. Let me just say, we’ve learned a lot and frankly, not all of it encouraging.”

A slight hint of “you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us” in her statement is unmistakable but as the NSA she will have a wider canvas on which to place India, not the daily vote count at the United Nations. That per force will lead to a more comprehensive view.

Rice has got to know India and its take on the world mainly through regular interactions with Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative during India’s two-year membership of the UN Security Council, which ended in December last year. They were well matched – both are combative, blunt and aggressive in pushing their country’s cause.

They clashed behind closed doors in the run up to the NATO-led attack on Libya. Puri, a star of the Indian foreign service who retired in February this year, often had to take on the army of US, French and British ambassadors led by Rice who couldn’t understand why India would abstain while Col. Qaddafi’s forces were attacking civilians.

As Syria heated up, Rice wanted UN pressure on the Assad regime but India, Brazil and South Africa wanted more diplomacy. The two worldviews collided repeatedly but the aftermath in Libya must have chastened Rice -- she is not a vocal advocate of intervening in Syria.

But the frequent differences may have killed whatever appetite remained in Washington for an expansion of the UN Security Council and for India as a permanent member.

But New Delhi can take heart in the fact that she will be a good counter to Secretary of State John Kerry who is seen as overly accommodating of Pakistan and deliberately distant to India. Even when directly questioned on India’s role in Afghanistan during a recent hearing in the US Congress, Kerry had nothing to say.

Rice is hard-nosed enough to see the reality of state-sponsored terrorism. She may be the new Hillary on the question of Pakistan. Her views may well carry more weight than those of Kerry, who is not particularly close to Obama. Ironically, Rice was to get Kerry’s position but withdrew her name following the “talking point” fiasco over the Benghazi attacks in which a US ambassador and three others were killed on 11 September, 2012.

Rice described the attacks as most likely spontaneous sparked by an anti-Islamic video, which later turned out to be incorrect. She was relying on talking points provided by the CIA and whetted by the State Department. But the Republicans, nevertheless, ferociously attacked her and used the incident to kill her nomination for secretary of state.

Obama came to her defense, saying the Republicans should go after him instead, if they had a problem. He has now given her a more powerful job, which does not require senate confirmation.

Rice is said to be blunt to the point of being rude. Last December she told China’s UN ambassador that his position on North Korea’s missile launch was “ridiculous.” She is known to use words such as “crap” in diplomatic encounters.

Her personality may inject a little activism in US foreign policy, even though the overall tone set by Obama of an America in retreat is likely to remain.

But what is certain is that Rice as NSA will be a power point all on her own.