DAVID IGNATIUS: A provocateur in the West Wing

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – Think of Susan Rice as the president’s assertive kid sister. Where he’s cool and deferential, she’s boisterous and sometimes abrasive. Where he avoids public confrontation, she often relishes it. They have different styles, but make no mistake: What Rice says out loud is often what Obama is thinking privately.
In appointing Rice to become national security adviser in place of Tom Donilon, Obama is trading a reliable gray sedan for a flashier but more temperamental sports car. He’s replacing a man who dislikes taking risks, and has generally been good at avoiding them, with one of the more adventurous people in government.
And then there’s Benghazi: Obama is swapping a man who generally avoided the Sunday talk shows for someone who nearly committed career suicide for delivering the famous Benghazi talking points (for which she was otherwise blameless). Enough, already, about Benghazi.
For an Obama administration that is struggling to find its voice in the second term, Rice’s elevation should be helpful.
But the Rice nomination brings some obvious risks: She is not a quiet inside player in the tradition of Brent Scowcroft, who was Donilon’s role model as national security adviser. She’s more in the tradition of extroverted policy intellectuals such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger, who used the media press and other channels to shape events.
It will be interesting to see how Rice shares the foreign-policy platform with Secretary of State John Kerry.
Obama’s personal relationship with Rice will allow her to speak with special authority when she’s dealing with foreign leaders. But it could undercut Kerry, who’s otherwise off to a strong start.
Rice will have trouble matching Donilon’s success as a process manager. Critics argue that Donilon has been overly organized and top-down, but he has run a smooth interagency process: paperwork is delivered on time to the Oval Office; decisions are made and implemented (or fuzzed because the president wants it that way).
Donilon has been a firm and sometimes controlling presence, and he’s known as a hard taskmaster. But he gets the job done, in a way that Cabinet officials generally feel is fair. This won’t be easy for Rice to replicate.
Rice’s biggest challenge is to help Obama project a more strategic view of foreign policy. Donilon took on the big issue of rebalancing U.S. diplomatic and military power toward Asia – culminating in this weekend’s summit between Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping. But beyond the pivot to Asia, policymaking during the Donilon years sometimes seemed reactive.
Rice has star power. She is smart, funny, profane and passionate. She can also be her own worst enemy – using sharp words or elbows when a softer touch would work better. In that sense, she and Obama are well-matched: The cool and cautious chief executive may benefit from a more hot-tempered national security adviser, and vice versa.
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.