What Will Obama's Foreign Policy Look Like?

>> Sunday, November 30, 2008

There has been a great number of blog posts around the net expressing opinions on what Obama is doing with his national security and foriegn policy team. Keeping Gates at defense, bringing in Clinton to State, Jones as National Security Adviser with Tom Donilon as his Deputy and Susan Rice as the UN ambassador, Biden as VP. Instead of simply bitching about these people and whether they are new enough or left enough i want to get a little deeper into the weeds and see if we can sort out exactly what Obama wants to achieve with this group.

A lot of the critique of this group centers around the idea that Obama is selling out his positions that he staked out during the primaries. Many if not most of the aforementioned group were not strong backers of his exact positions across the board so questions about Obama's intent are more than ok, they are necessary. As the flotation of the Brennan nomination showed, making a strong case against someone can have an effect. Dissent is not a bad thing as long as it is reasoned. What appears to be driving the Obama picks is what appears to drive the Obama agenda in general, a broad consensus about what needs to be done,

What is interesting in my view is that what you now see forming is a broad consensus among liberals, liberal hawks and realists. There is relatively universal agreement among these groups that we need to begin withdrawing from Iraq, focus more on Afghanistan, opt for direct diplomacy with Iran, reengage with the world, improve our image, strengthen our alliances, close Guantanamo and deal with global warming and energy security.

That is a pretty broad consensus and it's one that politically was first pushed hardest by the left. On the traditional right-left spectrum, you would have to call this a solidly left of center consensus that has in fact been Obama's foreign policy platform for the last two years

It is reflected in Obama's ability to pick realists, liberals, and liberal hawks to build a coalition foreign policy team. It's unfair to typify any of Obama's picks as absolutely from one school but roughly speaking Obama campaign advisors and folks such as Susan Rice are more representative of liberals. Jim Jones and Bob Gates are more representative of the realists, and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are more representative of the liberal hawks. Although, again, none of these labels really fit perfectly.

Whats missing in that set of broad consensus but is still a critical part of Obama's ideas on foriegn policy is a focus less on the national level and more on the transnational and the subnational. Obama favors a shift to a soft power strategy that knows no boarders. Its a radical change but one that has the potential to deal with a number of our serious challenges. Back in March Salon had a piece entitled The Obama Doctrine. The central premise of this article is that Obama is centered on rettoling American foreign policy to target and fight against the potential terrorist and transnational groups. The label given to the soft power side of this is "Dignity Promotion"

This ability to see the world from different perspectives informs what the Obama team hopes will replace the Iraq War mind-set: something they call dignity promotion. "I don't think anyone in the foreign-policy community has as much an appreciation of the value of dignity as Obama does," says Samantha Power, a former key aide and author of the groundbreaking study of U.S. foreign policy and genocide, A Problem From Hell. "Dignity is a way to unite a lot of different strands [of foreign-policy thinking]," she says. "If you start with that, it explains why it's not enough to spend $3 billion on refugee camps in Darfur, because the way those people are living is not the way they want to live. It's not a human way to live. It's graceless -- an affront to your sense of dignity."

During Bush's second term, a strange disconnect has arisen in liberal foreign-policy circles in response to the president's so-called "freedom agenda." Some liberals, like Matthew Yglesias in his book Heads In The Sand, note the insincerity of the administration's stated goal of exporting democracy. Bush, they observe, only targets for democratization countries that challenge American hegemony. Other liberal foreign-policy types, such as Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, insist the administration is sincere but too focused on elections without supporting the civil-society institutions that sustain democracy. Still others, like Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch, contend that a focus on democracy in the developing world without privileging the protection of civil and political rights is a recipe for a dangerous illiberalism.

What's typically neglected in these arguments is the simple insight that democracy does not fill stomachs, alleviate malaria, or protect neighborhoods from marauding bands of militiamen. Democracy, in other words, is valuable to people insofar as it allows them first to meet their basic needs. It is much harder to provide that sense of dignity than to hold an election in Baghdad or Gaza and declare oneself shocked when illiberal forces triumph. "Look at why the baddies win these elections," Power says. "It's because [populations are] living in climates of fear." U.S. policy, she continues, should be "about meeting people where they're at. Their fears of going hungry, or of the thug on the street. That's the swamp that needs draining. If we're to compete with extremism, we have to be able to provide these things that we're not [providing]."

This is why, Obama's advisers argue, national security depends in large part on dignity promotion. Without it, the U.S. will never be able to destroy al-Qaeda. Extremists will forever be able to demagogue conditions of misery, making continued U.S. involvement in asymmetric warfare an increasingly counterproductive exercise -- because killing one terrorist creates five more in his place. "It's about attacking pools of potential terrorism around the globe," Gration says. "Look at Africa, with 900 million people, half of whom are under 18. I'm concerned that unless you start creating jobs and livelihoods we will have real big problems on our hands in ten to fifteen years."

The focus on an actual shift to ways of fighting counter insurgency instead of paying lip service to fighting counter insurgents would be a major step in the right direction. However the transition requires more than a shift in the civilian side of things it requires a shift in the military side too. This is where keeping Gates at defense comes in according to Slate's Fred Kaplan and promoted by Steve Benen,

In his nearly two years at the helm of the Pentagon, Gates has delivered a series of speeches on the future direction of military policy. He has urged officers to recognize the shift in the face of warfare from the World War II legacy of titanic armored battles between comparably mighty foes to the modern reality of small shadow wars against terrorists and insurgents.

More than that, he has called for systematic adjustments to this new reality: canceling weapons systems that aren't suited to these kinds of wars and building more weapons that are; reforming the promotion boards to reward and advance the creative officers who have proved most adept at this style of warfare; rethinking the roles and missions of the individual branches of the armed services; siphoning some of the military's missions, especially those dealing with "nation building," to civilian agencies.

From the start, he knew that he wouldn't have time to make a lot of headway in these campaigns -- which, within the military, represent fairly radical ideas. His intent was to spell out an agenda, and lay the groundwork, for the next administration.

Now it seems he's going to be in the next administration. And it's a good bet that President Barack Obama will be more receptive to Gates' agenda than President George W. Bush ever was. First, Obama is open to new ideas generally. Second, at his Nov. 25 press conference, Obama said he would direct his new budget director to go over every program, every line item, with an eye toward eliminating those that don't work or aren't needed -- and he pointedly included the Department of Defense among the agencies to be audited.

In short, Gates might be able to do many of the things that until now he has managed only to advocate.

So whatever Gates other thoughts this idea of shifting is in line with Obama's thoughts. As Kaplan and Benen note the advantage of keeping Gates on to carry out this shift is that he is already familiar with the shifts that need to be made and has the street cred to carry them out with Obama's backing. A new face with the same idea's would take time getting up to speed and Obama has made clear that he plans to waste no time when he can avoid it.

Assuming Obama's chief goal is actually to fight terrorists it explains one of the reasons that he has been so close to the Brent Snowcroft school of foreign policy as Josh Marshall explains in this video.

Snowcrofts WSJ piece was premised on the idea that attacking Iraq would derail our counter terrorism efforts,

But the central point is that any campaign against Iraq, whatever the strategy, cost and risks, is certain to divert us for some indefinite period from our war on terrorism. Worse, there is a virtual consensus in the world against an attack on Iraq at this time. So long as that sentiment persists, it would require the U.S. to pursue a virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq, making any military operations correspondingly more difficult and expensive. The most serious cost, however, would be to the war on terrorism. Ignoring that clear sentiment would result in a serious degradation in international cooperation with us against terrorism. And make no mistake, we simply cannot win that war without enthusiastic international cooperation, especially on intelligence.

Scowcroft's thoughts do tend to go very well with what Obama has put forth. That segment of the foriegn policy establishment has been outspoken about the need to engage our enemies and stop the policy of ignoring people we dont like just as obama has. If were going to talk to people more we might want to go back to respecting the UN as an institution.

If Obama hopes to make major shifts in the way america works on the world stage he needs someone competent and important to head the UN. Susan Rice is that person. Susan Rice is someone who was with Obama during the primaries and was also a veteran of the Clinton white house. Her primary focus seems to be on Africa and she has been noted for her involvement in the lack of intervention in Rwanda. She is for intervention in Darfur. Her close ties to Obama may be taken as a signal that the US is giving that institution more respect. Obama is a big fan of multilateralism when available and if he hopes to make a major shift in the way the US combats terror world wide using the UN as an institutional vehicle is going to be very important. Obama has a history of being in the forefront of those dealing with Africa and the multitude of genocidal wars going on there and the UN spends a lot of time dealing with Africa so Susan rice seems like a good fit there.

Not much is known about General James Jones views on general foreign policy. His views on energy are one of the best understood because of his Sept 30th speech at Fort Collins Co where he came out for increased off shore drilling and increases in nuclear power. He views energy security as an important part of national security and advocated a policy of fixing our energy infrastructure that rachel maddow would be proud of. We also know that he views afghanistan/pakistan as an essential fight in defeating terrorism and is committed to a long term presence there. He shares that with obama. Jones' white paper on afghanistan is available in pdf form here.

The key to success - as in any counter-insurgency - rests on the Afghans. If enabled with effective security forces, the promise of a growing economy and legitimate institutions of government including the legal and judicial system, Afghanistan can become a functioning and secure country. This will take a great deal of time. Hence, nato and the international community must reaffirm its commitment for the long haul that will be measured in years and perhaps decades, though the form and substance of assistance will change as that nation progresses towards peace, stability and democracy.

But, if nato and the international community, together with the Karzai government, cannot put forward a coordinated and comprehensive effort that is sustainable and adequately resourced for this long-term, Afghanistan will experience only the worst of possible outcomes, and nato itself could be on the path towards irrelevancy. This need not be the case and it is still not too late to act decisively as the main foundations for solution are essentially in place. The first step is to understand that the situation in Afghanistan is grave and that immediate action and attention are needed by the United States and the international community in order to prevent a setback to regional and global security. Urgency is the watchword. The international community must act, and it must act now.

Jones and Obama clearly align on their views of what needs to be done regarding Afghanistan/Pakistan and the role they will play in combating transnational terrorist actors. Jones also has a healthy appreciation for the fact that military power alone is not close to strong enough to deal with the problems that plague Afghanistan. the paper devotes a great deal to the creation of a corruption free afghan judicial system. That is something that strikes me as an important step in fighting any group that thrives on the illegitimacy of the government. If we cannot establish the basic rule of law in that country how can we ever hope to have a people who meet the type of dignity level that obama clearly believes is important?

so far there are obvious areas of alignment between Obama's picks and his announced foreign policy ideas. Obama has always been an advocate of a strong interventionist and activist foriegn policy that places america in a firm and central role. Obama was very clear on his desire to engage John McCain on a debate about US foriegn policy during the election. It is an area he feels comfortable with despite his lack of hands on experience. The people he has picked reflect that. The only one who seems to be incongruous is Hillary Clinton.

Clinton at state just does not seem to make a great deal of sense. Yglesias sums up the first shallow impression,

I’ve been out of the country and not able to follow the Clinton for Secretary of State gossip in all the level of detail I would have liked. But surely I wouldn’t be the first to observe that this would seem like an odd pairing. Clinton and Obama are both formidable political leaders and, as we saw during the primaries, they have very similar ideas about the vast majority of public policy areas. But Obama thinks Clinton’s support for invading Iraq in 2002-2003 showed bad judgment and Clinton thinks Obama’s stated willingness to hold direct, high-level talks with Iran without preconditions is “naive and irresponsible.”

That’s not to say it’s a bad idea — what matters is ideas moving forward, not things that have been said in the past. But the specific policy area at issue seems to be one in which the two of them aren’t all that well-aligned.

On the other hand people like steve benen think it is a fine pick,

Between her Senate work and time as First Lady, Clinton has established international respect and credibility, and she's on a first-name basis with leaders around the world. She's arguably more hawkish than the President-elect, but when it comes to global diplomacy, there's no reason to think Clinton and Obama aren't on the same page.

The other worry is exactly how well she will run the agency and the overall look that the agency will take under Clinton. Clinton did not run a great campaign and the drama could be considered quite epic. Spencer Ackerman laid out the big questions,
The dispute is only partly ideological in nature. While the coterie of foreign-policy thinkers around Obama have been more liberal, in an aggregate sense — on issues like Iraq and negotiations with America’s adversaries — the Obama loyalists question the boldness of the Clintonites. They fear that Obama’s apparent embrace of Clinton represents an acquiescence to the conventional Democratic foreign-policy approaches that they once derided as courting disaster. Some wonder whether a Clinton-run State Dept. will hire progressive Obama partisans after an acrimonious primary.

In addition, some Obama loyalists wonder whether the same people who attacked Obama on foreign policy during the primaries can implement Obama’s agenda from State Dept. perches. “Look, Clinton and Obama are both smart people,” said one Democratic official who would not speak for the record, “and I’m sure their one-on-one relationship would be OK. But when you hire a Clinton, you hire more than just that one person, you get the entire package.” If Clinton becomes secretary of state, it’s possible that the fissures between her loyalists and Obama’s would be a significant undercurrent of the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making.

No one would comment for the record for this story from either the Clinton or the Obama camps. Several people were reluctant to speak even on background, whether out of an exhaustion with a dispute that has lasted for more than 18 months within the party or out of reluctance to jeopardize their own prospects for jobs with the Obama administration.

Some in the Democratic foreign-policy community worry about the implications for a cohesive diplomatic message, given the differences in substance and tone between the supporters of the two Democratic giants.

“Foreign policy is probably where Clinton and Obama differ the most,” said the Democratic official. “They just have fundamentally different instincts. On the big decisions, Obama can and will certainly call the shots, but the consistency of follow-through could really be a problem. And the instincts on the smaller decisions will be very different. Cohesion of our foreign policy could suffer.”

So Clinton seems political in nature to me. Maybe she plays bad cop to Obama's good cop or maybe she was promised something during the election season. Whatever the reason i really dont see that she was the best choice, the most logical choice for the position. Because of this i have a hard time anticipating exactly how Clinton is going to work out. That is an appointment that only time can sort out.

Generally speaking the choices for Obama's foriegn policy team represent the broad non-neocon consensus about what america needs to do in foriegn policy. When Obama speaks about ending the mindset that got us into the iraq war i think he is not talking about a huge reevaluation about the role of america's primacy on the world stage but instead a shift away from great power state level dealings to a more transnational approach.


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