Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.

A Second Rate Team for Obama’s Second Term?

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term. If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s over sea’s endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shake up in personnel, and this is to be expected. What is less expected is the time that is being taken to make any such announcements.

The sudden departure of General Petraeus will present the President with an un-necessary headache as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon. The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The Key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings. The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is likely to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Where this to occur, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Where this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; The NSC is a possibility.

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed a Republican to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to chose from. Where he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

Were Obama to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity. For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

Whoever gets the nod to these top positions, however, in Obama’s second term, and with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.