Obama’s new foreign and national security team is taking shape. As expected, after appointing John Kerry as Secretary of State, the President has chosen the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, to head the Defense department and John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Brennan and Kerry’s nominations will sail easily through the Senate confirmation process. Hagel’s will instead be much more problematic. He has alienated most of his Republican colleagues with his critical comments on the pro-Israel lobbies in the United States; he has early denounced the intervention in Iraq and its conduct; he is considered to have a dovish attitude towards the Iranian regime and to underplay the dangerousness of its nuclear program. It’s hard to imagine the Senate blocking his appointment; but it’s a sort of a mystery why Obama has decided to spend, and possibly waste, some political capital on such a controversial choice.
What do these decisions indicate and what can we expect from the next four years?
Obama’s choices show the intention to centralize in the White House the control and management of foreign affairs. In different ways, Kerry, Brennan and Hagel are all Obama loyalists. Both the former senators are very close to vice-President Biden, whose importance in the administration is sometimes underestimated. Their predecessors, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus were more independent figures, although they proved to be remarkably disciplined and loyal to the President.
Furthermore, the appointments seem to confirm the cautiousness and inner realism of Obama’s approach to international matters. Kerry and even more Hagel have been very critical of the hyper-activist policies of the Bush years, advocated not only by the neoconservatives on the Right but also by many liberal hawks. Not accidentally, one of the most influential magazines of the latter group, “The New Republic”, has harshly criticized the appointment of the former Nebraska Senator.
Hagel, however, will not be in charge of foreign policy and on crucial decisions will be inevitably overruled by the President. When it comes to contents, it’s hard to imagine a radical rupture with the foreign policy choices of the past four years that have irritated many liberal democrats, but are supported by a majority of Americans and reflect Obama’s pragmatism and risk-averseness.
A realist and sometimes unscrupulous foreign policy following the script of the first term, as the one we can expect, will be based on three pillars. The first is the continuation, and possibly intensification, of the aggressive campaign against international terrorism. Put aside the hope of closing Guantanamo and of offering even some symbolic gesture to placate his liberal base, Obama has followed in Bush’s footsteps, escalating the use of drone strikes and covert operations. On this, it’s hard to imagine a change in the future, given the general appreciation of the public and the shared belief, within the administration, that such an approach makes sense both strategically and politically.
The second pillar will be represented by a low-key diplomacy, where the U.S. will try, when necessary, to lead from behind, relying instead on international institutions and allies. The objective, once again, is to reduce risks and costs and to avoid foreign entanglements broadly opposed at home. The model is represented here by the operation that led to the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, its many contradictions and the uncertain future of Libya notwithstanding.
The third and last pillar will be represented by the shift in the geopolitical priorities of the United States and the precedence now assigned to Asia. In the region the U.S. will expand its efforts to both contain China and integrate it in the U.S.-led liberal international order.
It’s hard to imagine bold initiatives in other theatres and on other issues, including the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Obama will try to avoid ill-designed, and highly unrealistic, peace initiatives as those he undertook at the beginning of his Presidency. It is also clear that Obama will look for a legacy more on the domestic side, possibly finding in comprehensive immigration reform a crucial, and highly symbolic, issue similar to what health care was during his first term.
Willing or nor, Obama has however to accept that such legacy will be defined also by his foreign policy choices, successes, mistakes and ambiguities. The leader of the international system can never completely isolate himself from events and processes that are often unexpected, and render his foreign policy inevitably reactive and frequently improvised. In the case of the U.S. the distinction between the foreign and domestic realms is itself tenuous and artificial, as immigration and its impact on intra-American relations proves very well. Finally, the legacy of an American president is the product also of his global image: of how world public opinion interprets and judges his policies, visions and words. Obama has often and effectively appealed to this global public, who has trusted him (and still does, as all the international polls show), but that now awaits deeds to finally follow words
Die Aargauer Zeitung, January 9, 2013