Obama Foreign Policy: Realists to Reign?

Less than two months before taking office, President-elect Barack Obama is making clear that realists – some more identified with Republicans and the military than with Democrats – are likely to rule the incoming administration’s foreign policy roost, at least at the outset.

While Obama is expected to formally unveil his Cabinet-level national-security picks Monday, a plethora of leaks to the media over the past week has made it virtually certain that Pentagon chief Robert Gates will remain at his current post for at least a year; Sen. Hillary Clinton will be nominated as secretary of state; and ret. Marine Gen. James L. Jones will become the new president’s national security adviser.

In addition, ret. Adm. Dennis Blair appears to be Obama’s choice as the director of national intelligence (DNI), while Susan Rice, a former top Africa policy aide under President Bill Clinton, will be made ambassador to the United Nations, a post that some modern presidents have accorded Cabinet rank.

What all five, in addition to Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and Obama himself, have in common are a strong rejection of the unilateralism and reliance on "hard power" of President George W. Bush’s first term and a commitment to engage diplomatically with Washington’s key international foes or rivals, including Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Russia.

They also likely agree on the importance of both restoring and strengthening traditional U.S. alliances that were badly battered by the Bush administration’s record, particularly its conduct of the "global war on terror" and the Iraq war, and enhancing cooperation with major emerging powers, notably China, India, and Brazil.

They range along an ideological spectrum from Republican realists like Gates, a career intelligence officer who served in top national security spots under Presidents Reagan and the two Bushes, to Rice, a liberal interventionist who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief Africa adviser and as one of Obama’s closest foreign policy aides during the presidential campaign.

Both Clinton and Biden, whom Obama chose as his running-mate in major part for his longtime service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lean somewhat to the liberal side of the spectrum. However, the policy-making center of gravity, particularly if, as expected, Jones’s office becomes the key locus for policy coordination, is likely to be with the realists, who have been ascendant during the younger Bush’s second term, particularly since Gates joined the administration in November 2006, and Adm. Michael Mullen became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"With Gates staying on at the Pentagon and Jones in the White House, the realists will have more leverage," according to Steven Clemons, the director of the American Strategy project at the New America Foundation, who added that, if not handled carefully, "there’s a chance we could end up with warfare between the liberal interventionists and the structural realists" comparable in some ways to the battle between the hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney and the realists led initially by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and later by Gates that bedeviled the Bush administration.

Jones, who spent most of his youth in France and retired from military service in 2006 after a three-year term as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), is seen as a realist thinker very much in the mold of ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and mentored both Gates and Powell during the latter’s administration. Jones currently serves on the advisory board of the Scowcroft Institute at Texas A&M University.

Although active duty at the time, Jones echoed Scowcroft in voicing serious reservations about the hawks’ plans to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before the 2003 invasion. He reportedly rejected the administration’s efforts in 2006 to recruit him for deputy secretary of state and commander of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), which covers the Greater Middle East and Central Asia, after he completed his term as SACEUR.

"He’s a very forward-looking military officer with a strong strategic sense, much like a Marine [version of] Powell," ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff, told IPS. "And, like Powell, he’s also a consummate politician and a very smart one who understands that there are global challenges beyond conventional security threats out there that will require Washington to work closely with other countries."

Since his retirement, Jones has served on commissions to investigate progress in training Iraqi security forces and on the situation in Afghanistan, about which his warnings that NATO and allied forces were losing the war had a major impact here earlier this year. In 2007 was appointed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a special envoy to promote greater security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

While Jones’s career has been largely centered in Europe and the Middle East – indeed, he is the current chairman of the influential Atlantic Council here – Blair’s has been more Asia-oriented; indeed, his last posting was Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (Pacom) where he became best known for cultivating closer military-to-military relations with China, earning him the disfavor of former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.

Since his retirement from the Navy in 2002, he has also served as president of the government’s Institute of Defense Analyses and reportedly is close to Mullen.

While both Gates and Mullen have argued against Obama’s pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of his inaugural Jan. 20, most analysts believe that they – as well as Jones, Blair, and other members of the team – share the president-elect’s larger strategic goals to stabilize the Greater Middle East and reducing the strain on overstretched U.S. ground forces.

This to be achieved by accelerating training of Iraqi and Afghan government security forces; encouraging political reconciliation between the countries’ governments and insurgent forces willing to break all ties with al Qaeda and other "irreconcilable" groups; and aggressively pursue regional diplomacy backed by Europe, China and Russia that will create a more stable security structure from the eastern Mediterranean to India.

That agenda also includes engagement with Iran and Syria, as well as intensified efforts to gain a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, if not the entire Arab League, a goal which Scowcroft, in an important column co-written with President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and published in the ‘Washington Post’ last week, has argued should be a top priority of the new administration.

"I think Gates wants a chance to make those kinds of leaps, and Jones is on the same page," said Clemons. "My hunch is that Hillary Clinton and [James] Steinberg [her likely deputy] will work collaboratively to achieve that vision."

As to the strong presence of senior military officials on the team, according to Clemons, it not only gets the most powerful foreign-policy bureaucracy on board, but it also "protects Obama from critics who are prepared to call him the ‘appeaser-in-chief’."

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.