Barack Obama has tough choices to make for America’s emerging foreign policy horizon.
In assessing what the Obama foreign policy landscape will look like, the faces of those who populate it will be all-important. The campaign pledge was ‘Change,’ but what has been emerging since Barack Obama’s acceptance speech is a projection of change that is careful, measured and responsible. And he will be keen to ensure that his core-team appointments help to reinforce that expectation.
Peopling an incoming government is always tough but this time round the President-elect faces a particularly hard challenge. His audience is expecting new ideas put forward by new figures unrecognisable from the “inside the beltway elites.”
Mr. Obama has been chastised as being beholden to special interests. Yet those critics are also expecting his team to have the experience and skills necessary to make those ideas actionable. They are looking for change, but change arrived at through a smooth transition. In short, observers everywhere are anticipating a new Camelot, a 21st century Kennedy-esque collection of “the best and the brightest.”
The prospect of change appeals to everyone. That is its greatest attraction, but also its inherent difficulty.
Mr. Obama was elected because the prevailing attitude of “anything but four more years” created fertile ground to usher in change by successfully capturing the imagination of the nation and the wider world. Bands of “hopers” everywhere climbed aboard his change train and cheered him along, each group silently praying that the change would be the kind that they wished for.
What, then, should we be looking for? The crucial indicator of what is to come will be those in whom the President-elect puts his faith to get the job done. Early indications are inconclusive, and Mr. Obama’s inclination to appoint a Lincoln-like “cabinet of rivals” makes guessing their meaning harder still.
So far the only major addition to the senior team has been Rahm Emanuel, whose selection as Mr. Obama’s Chief of Staff has raised many eyebrows. Congressman Emanuel has a reputation as a confrontational Chicago hardman who previously served as a volunteer with the Israeli Defence Force. Republicans decried his appointment as a betrayal of Mr. Obama’s unity agenda and a plunge back into politics as usual. Muslims and Middle East human rights watchers who had silently pinned their hopes on Mr. Obama’s election were disheartened by the appointment of a man whose father had in the 1940s been a member of Irgun, the militant Israeli terrorist group.
However, Mr. Emanuel will not be determining Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy, nor will he be setting the tone for the level of bi-partisanship in the new White House policy approach. What this seasoned political operator will be doing is to build an effective White House team and get the new President’s policies implemented. On such matters, he has an excellent record.
Another possible clue is Mr. Obama’s Vice-President, Joe Biden, who is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a committee member since 1975. Mr. Biden brings foreign policy acumen and has said he sees his role as “Adviser in Chief.” This could mean that a President who is fully occupied with the economy might look to his Vice-President for guidance on foreign policy.
For a Secretary of State
This leaves us speculating who will fill the defining foreign policy role of Secretary of State. All the talk recently has been of former first lady and presidential rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is well known internationally, having travelled at her husband’s side when he served as Commander-in-Chief and will have gained a unique insight into some elements of foreign policy formation during that time.
She remains popular at home and senior Republican figures have said they would endorse her. The fierce battle for the party’s nomination has left open wounds in the Democratic Party which Ms Clinton’s selection as the nation’s chief diplomat will help to heal, thereby strengthening the party in office. For good or ill, Ms Clinton will also bring with her the considerable influence of her husband.
Many of her supporters during the primaries claimed that her nomination offered a ‘two for the price of one’ deal. The Clinton combo is further bolstered by Bill Clinton’s philanthropic activities and his capacity as a private aid generator, rallying big-spenders around the world to donate to causes he believes in. If Mr. Obama could make this work alongside U.S. policy, they would be a powerful force on the international stage.
However, many of Mr. Obama’s senior appointments have already been ex-Clinton stalwarts. His change agenda will not benefit from positioning the former first family as America’s foreign policy figureheads. Indeed, Clinton Mark II could risk impinging on the authoritative figure of the presidency and make Ms Clinton a dangerous force should she challenge Mr. Obama for the presidency in 2012.
Associating too closely with some of Mr. Clinton’s activities since he left office could also be detrimental. A team of Democratic lawyers is currently going through his accounts and contacts book to make sure there is nothing compromising in there.
Mr. Obama has also rightly questioned Ms Clinton’s actual experience. Travel abroad as a premier’s spouse and service on the Armed Services Committee do not give the two-term senator the edge over some of Mr. Obama’s other possible foreign policy architects.
Conflict with Biden
Her appointment might also bring about conflict with Mr. Biden, whose immense foreign policy experience and tendency to speak his mind could put him on a collision course with Ms Clinton.
Critically, Ms Clinton’s foreign policy stance does not represent the change Mr. Obama has promised. Rather, her approach to everything from Israel to Iran to Pakistan represents relative continuity.
It has been mooted that Mr. Obama may instead choose Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. He is at least a former diplomat (Ambassador to the United Nations) and well versed in foreign policy crises, including some which will undoubtedly recur in the next few years.
Were Mr. Obama to reach across the aisle he could ask a Republican like Richard Luger or Chuck Hagel to take the role. Both have had a good working relationship with Mr. Biden in the past and are capable of fresh thinking.
There is even a potential wild card in former Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns who has served the State Department for the last 27 years and could provide deft assistance in the transition. It has become apparent that his thinking coincides with Mr. Obama’s on a number of issues.
Other long-odd possibles include former presidential nominee John Kerry or former Balkan envoy and Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke.
However, it is likely that the Clinton couple will see a return to the international stage. After letting the speculation go on this long, rejecting Ms Clinton now would severely rupture the party divisions that her appointment would heal. Whether or not her past connections and conventional foreign policy positions will tie the President’s hands we would not know until that moment arrives. Positions such as Defence and National Security Adviser, as well as lower-profile roles, will be important to the smooth running of this machine.
But State is crucial. It would be unwise for a President in one of the most difficult foreign policy environments of modern times to choose someone simply for their public persona and their ability to patch up differences within his own party. Foreign policy-watchers and State Department officials at all levels had been hoping for a diplomat, or at least a serious diplomatic heavyweight, to fill this role.
Mr. Obama could still change his mind and put skill, experience and a new direction ahead of internal party politics, but don’t hold your breath. His hopers will just have to cross their fingers further that he will be able to steer the ship of state into new waters with such a strong second hand on the tiller.
6 months ago