The second administration of President Barack Obama is being seen in some circles as a possible fork in the road. There will be a new national security and foreign policy team in place and it perhaps would not be remiss to describe potential shifts in policy as being dominated by "realists," which used to be the norm in Washington but was last seen during the presidency of the first George Bush. A realistic foreign and defense doctrine does not guarantee against mistakes of the magnitude of Vietnam, but its proponents would ideally proceed cautiously while viewing the world as it is framed by genuine American interests prioritized in light of available resources. All chest thumping about the United States being the only remaining superpower or any description of the president as the leader of the free world should well be considered to be in bad taste. Realists might even avoid interventions based on the humanitarian or idealistic concerns preferred by the Democrats or on the sugarplum visions of total global domination favored by the Republicans.
Say what one will about David Petraeus, Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton, none was a realist. All three were apparatchiks with more than a whiff of overweening political ambition and partisanship thrown into the hopper. Their hidden agendas and trimming to politicize the policies of their respective constituencies made every word coming out of their mouths somewhat suspect. When Petraeus, a political general if there ever was one, moved over to CIA and sought to expand the drone program it had little to do with actual national security needs and much more to do with accelerating the militarization of the Agency. Panetta at the Pentagon never challenged the status quo in Afghanistan, covering the lack of viability of the 2014 handover with what were essentially half truths about progress being made. He now has expanded the combat role of women, a politically correct gesture that will be popular with at least some of the Democratic base but which will hardly improve combat effectiveness and will be difficult to implement under field conditions. Hillary Clinton, whose thinly concealed ambition to become president in 2016 drove her tenure at the State Department, presided over a fuzzy blend of humanitarian internationalism combined with unrelenting and unreasonable animus towards enemies du jour including Libya, Syria, and Iran. In Senate testimony Hillary has most recently expanded the Global War on Terror to include nearly all of Africa, contradicting other more cautious messages coming out of the White House indicating correctly that the situation in Mali is at best a regional problem.
Chuck Hagel at the Defense Department and John Kerry at State could bring with them a refreshing measure of objectivity but one should not necessarily expect that there will be any dramatic shifts in policy, which will be shaped collectively at the White House. One hopes that they will be willing to speak the truth to power. Both are combat veterans from Vietnam who later opposed the war itself and both have become restrained in exercising the military option partly as a result of that experience, which should be regarded by most Americans as a plus given the global chaos derived from repeated U.S. military interventions over the past twelve years.
John Brennan at CIA admittedly brings with him considerable negative baggage as he has been the principal architect of the Obama counter-terrorism policy, which has included extrajudicial killing, an increase in drone warfare, and the expansion of government secrecy to conceal any abuses inherent in the program. Before that, he was a senior CIA official who was knowledgeable of the torture program under George W. Bush. One also suspects that he must have had some role in helping to craft the surveillance-based national security state which Obama is now institutionalizing together with counter-terrorism policy on the foundation established by his predecessor. It would perhaps have been better if he had not been the nominee for DCI, but even Brennan has a positive side relative to the man he is replacing in that those who know him regard him as energetic, well-informed and pragmatic. His ambition will presumably be satisfied by his appointment as DCI, which might well free him up to be less politically compliant if he disagrees with policies. There have been suggestions from a number of sources that Brennan believes the drone program to have outlived its usefulness and to be counter-productive and I have also heard that there was considerable friction in his relationship with Jose Rodriguez, the Director of Clandestine Services, over the CIA’s use of torture, which he opposed. He reportedly wants to scale back drone operations and gradually return CIA to its traditional role of gathering intelligence even though that process will take many years to accomplish. The move will be welcome within CIA, where the powerful Clandestine Services deputy directorate has been resentful of its lost prerogatives, but it does not necessarily imply that the drone war will be dismantled at any time soon. Indeed, drones will soon be based in Niger to fight terrorists in central Africa, joining major existing bases in the Seychelles and Djibouti. The expansion in Africa will likely be balanced by a sharp cut back in places like Pakistan where drones have done the most collateral damage and where there is considerable evidence that the policy itself has been counter-productive.
If one goes by Obama’s own words (a dangerous proposition when dealing with any politician), the United States will revert to a traditional, less assertive international role embracing a more humble Pax Americana rather than repeatedly intervening militarily to set things right. It will mean abandoning the idea that America is and should be perpetually at war, which was the Bush Doctrine, and is largely a result of diminished resources rather than any desire to relinquish leadership. The first test case will be Afghanistan, which surely will see a major or even total drawdown in 2014. If the country falls to the Taliban shortly thereafter, a la Vietnam, the hawks will try to force a reversion to the old global strategy but Obama is almost certainly banking on the situation continuing to be manageable at least until he is out of office.
The White House’s underlying assumption is that the war on terror has reached a point where the large, self-sufficient terrorist infrastructures have been eliminated and it is now a question of dealing with emerging non state players who are less resourced and considerably less capable. That can be accomplished using traditional law enforcement and intelligence resources – indeed, that was probably always the case even in 2002. The White House will be restrained by the potential for losing the national security high ground to the Republicans, who will be sniping at every step along the way, and Obama will also be under pressure from members of his own party who support the Israeli model of incessant warfare against terrorists. What one might call the Susan Rice faction will also seek to use the military for humanitarian interventions following the models of the Balkans and Libya even though those examples can hardly be regarded as successes. The fact that Obama has shied away from direct engagement against Syria suggests that he does not want to repeat Benghazi.
And then there will be the thorny problem of what to do about Israel, which at times seems to dominate all foreign policy maneuvering in Washington, having been mentioned by name 135 times in the Senate hearings to approve Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Israel has yet to form a new government and which might well back off from its more bellicose posturings, though one reads with horror the reports that Ariel Sharon might actually be in Kraken-like fashion waking up from his seven year coma. The Obama strategy has been to be supportive of Israel publicly while privately stating that the Israeli government "doesn’t know what their own best interests are." President Obama has walked the tightrope by promising to go to war with Iran if necessary while at the same time avoiding the development of either red lines or a situation that would compel him to do so. The White House delaying tactic has consisted of proxy diplomacy without any real negotiation and no actual end game apart from demands for a complete Iranian surrender in an attempt to draw out the conflict in hopes that it will eventually resolve itself. It will be interesting to see if last week’s offer of direct talks between Washington and Tehran is serious. The Chuck Hagel nomination as Secretary of Defense has focused the wrath of the Israel Lobby and Hagel had to explain his views on Israel and Iran to the heads of major Jewish organizations in an attempt to avoid escalating the confrontation prior to his grilling by the Senate. Obama will be vulnerable to attack via the Lobby’s effective media and congressional access as well as from the numerous Republicans who will seek to capitalize on the situation while burnishing their pro-Israel credentials.
So have the realists returned to Washington? Maybe, but it is too soon to start partying because it will not necessarily mean any change in how business is being conducted by the White House. The kill lists, drones, and government secrecy will continue. The neoconservatives have considerable egg on their faces over the Hagel fiasco but they will undoubtedly continue to dominate Republican and corporate media foreign policy thinking and will, as well, have considerable traction with Democrats over issues like Israel and Iran. But there is also a definite war weariness afoot both inside and outside the beltway that will welcome the disengagement from Afghanistan and will push back against efforts to develop new areas of armed conflict in the Middle East and Africa. Whether the United States can somehow disengage from the Global War on Terror and all that it implies is anyone’s guess and it ignores the legacy of the less than successful humanitarian interventions promoted by the Clintons which have now become part of the Democratic Party DNA. But in a country that is technically bankrupt confronted by a history of abject failure in creating a de facto global empire over the past twelve years the desire to look for new solutions will be unavoidable. It would mean finally putting 9/11 behind us to look forward for a change and it might even be the first step in making the United States a normal country. Let us hope.