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.

The Senate ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee plays to a domestic constituency

It was the late Tip O’Neil who famously coined the phrase, “all politics is local.’  If ever there was a need to be reminded of this fact, it is surely in conjuncture with the latest outburst from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For anyone watching the news coverage of the events surrounding the latest efforts to besmirch the name of BP, a logical question to ask is, who one Earth is Senator Robert Menendez, and how did he suddenly become the Chair of such a powerful Senate Committee?

The simple answer is that he is not. Despite media claims to the contrary, Senator Menendez is NOT the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, this honour still rests with the former Democratic candidate for president, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Why then is the media misrepresenting Menendez’s role in all of this?

The Senate is made up of 2 elected officials from every state in the Union. Of these, some 19 serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, designed to oversee the foreign policy agencies of the federal government. Accordingly, these members provide oversight into the actions of the State Department, the CIA etc. However, not all members will take the same degree of interest in all activities. These senators may be examining foreign policy, but they remain domestic politicians, dependent upon a domestic constituency for their political lives and financial viability. Accordingly, members of the ‘Foreign’ Relations Committee have one eye on the globe and another on their home state. As events occur that impact their home state, they will take a special interest. And this is what has occurred in this instance. The Pan Am flight was returned to New York’s JFK airport and accordingly, it is senators from the Empire State and the Garden State of Jersey who are taking the lead on this matter.

Senators serve a fixed 6 year term in office, 2 years longer than the president and as such have a great deal of power in Washington. However, even they need to face the electorate and can only do so armed with their achievements (or otherwise) of their time in office.  Which is to say that Senator Menendez has to bring home the bacon, to become a name on the Hill and in the country at large in order to deliver for New Jersey.  This can be a very unforgiving state, as Jon Corzine recently discovered. One way to achieve these results is to jump on a bandwagon, and it would appear that this is just what the good senator from the Garden State has done.

By seemingly convincing the world’s media that he is Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has gained sudden global exposure by attempting to question Scottish and English lawmakers in relation to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the one individual convicted of blowing Pan Am flight 103 out of the sky in December 1988. By linking this decision to the plight of BP, the senator is on to a winner domestically, as few would be willing to defend the actions of the multi-national giant in the face of evidence that it helped lobby to release this terrorist in exchange for drilling rights. Menendez’s day in the sun was done initially by inviting former PM Tony Blair to testify, a decision that was VERY hastily withdrawn. The attention of the world’s media having been attained, Menendez extended his kind invitation to a series of lower level politicians, all of whom politely declined.

As I stated on the BBC and Sky News, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is very influential. Domestically. But it has no international jurisdiction. Whatsoever. No one is under any obligation to play ball with this inquiry and efforts to suggest otherwise are quite wrong. Not that it makes anyone look good. It is possible that reputations will be reduced as a result of all this. Quite what Americans must be thinking of their former hero, Tony Blair, when they see him grinning from ear to ear with Colonel Gaddafi, as BP sign their oil deal, is anyone’s guess. He is rapidly becoming all too reminiscent of the characature of himself in Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost: A politician out of power, out of luck and out of friends.

It is not often (nor indeed ever) that I find myself in complete agreement with Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, but his comments on Newsnight were on the button last night. If members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wish to come over for meetings to discuss the situation, great. But do not for one minute be under the illusion that lawmakers from Scotland or England are under any obligation to appear before their body in an official capacity. American claims of ‘stonewalling’ are amazing to hear when one considers that numerous hearings that have been held (and are still ongoing) into events that the US initiated but to which their officials have steadfastly refused to attend.

Senator Menendez has sought the spotlight to highlight to his constituents (many of whom lost loved ones on the Pan Am disaster) that he is doing all he can on their behalf. This is admirable enough, but it must be recognised for what it is: Domestic politics. Last night he raised the spectre of former security service personal being involved in oil deals and negotiations. I suspect that the whole area of secret deals involving oil, he security services etc will be an area that he will be wise to avoid. Like the international arms trade, there are some things that go one that no one wants examined, as a citizen of New Jersey, the good Senator will doubtless understand this.

The grandstanding also helps conceal the Senator’s role in helping to plan for the upcoming elections, that Democrats are expected to do poorly in. With little else to campaign on, his record is not looking so hot. By tilting at international bad guys, he can elevate himself to a whole new playing field. Who he climbs over in his efforts to secure his domestic reputation, will be another matter.