Obama to Seek Global Re-engagement, But How Much?

While a President Barack Hussein Obama will present a strikingly different face of the United States to the rest of the world, how different his actual foreign policy will be remains unclear.

On the one hand, Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of multilateralism and diplomatic re-engagement with the world, including longtime US adversaries such as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, as a contrast to the unilateralist and militarized approach of the incumbent, President George W. Bush.

On the other hand, most of his advisers are veterans of the administration of President Bill Clinton whose own brand of liberal interventionism – including the circumvention of the United Nations in the Balkans, Sudan, and Iraq and reluctance to press Israel to make key concessions in negotiations with its Arab neighbors – and notion that the US was the "indispensable nation" helped lay the foundation for the eight years that followed.

"There are lots of Clinton re-treads," noted Stephen Clemons, who heads the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation (NAF). He pointed to the reported offer to Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former senior Clinton aide, to serve as Obama’s White House Chief of Staff as one of many hints that a "Clinton-3" administration may be in the offing.

As the biracial son of a Kenyan father, who spent a formative part of his childhood in Indonesia and the rest in multicultural Hawaii, Obama will clearly present a far different image of the United States to the rest of the world than his immediate predecessor, or any other, for that matter. Aside from his background and physical appearance, his eloquence, equanimity under fire, and intellectual acuity and curiosity will also mark a striking contrast to Bush.

"The fact that he presents a very different face of America is very important, because our political capital around the world has been so very badly depleted over the last eight years," according to Raj Menon, who teaches international relations at Lehigh University.

But that image, as well the foreign policy commitments he made during the campaign – assuming that he holds to them – may not be sufficient to ensure the kind of sweeping change in course that much of the world and many voters who cast their ballots for him here expect.

Obama will almost certainly make good within a relatively short time on his promises to close the Guantanamo detention facility, rejoin global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming, and open direct dialogues with Syria and Iran, that will cheer Democrats and Washington’s European allies.

But, despite Democratic gains in Congress, he may be less inclined to expend political capital on more controversial issues that will require substantial bipartisan support, such as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or the Rome Protocol for the International Criminal Court and amending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to strengthen labor rights and environmental provisions.

With the US economy engulfed in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Obama is not likely to have nearly as much time to focus on foreign policy than he had thought even two months ago. The fact that an overwhelming majority of Tuesday’s voters rated economic issues as more important to them than the Iraq War or terrorism make it more likely that the new president will delegate more foreign policy decisions to his vice president, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, and subordinates who have yet to be named.

The most likely subordinates span a wide range of opinion – from crusading liberal interventionists, whose Manichean views of the world as a battleground of good versus evil are not so far removed from those of the more-tribalistic neoconservatives around Bush, to "realists," many of whom, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, have historically identified more with the Republican Party and are generally more leery of military intervention and "nation-building" enterprises, particularly in the absence of strong multilateral support.

Where Obama himself stands within that spectrum remains unclear to most observers, in part because foreign policy virtually disappeared from the presidential campaign after the financial crisis broke in mid-September.

The operating assumption is that he stands somewhere in between. While consistent with the interventionists like Biden, he has endorsed the imposition of no-fly zones, unilaterally if necessary, over Darfur in Sudan to stop what they call the "genocide" there, and his emphasis on engaging enemies diplomatically, regardless of their human-rights record, reflects a more realist tendency. In fact, he may well try to achieve a balance between the two poles in his appointments.

Thus, it is believed that his first choice to head the Pentagon is the Republican incumbent, Robert Gates, who, along with Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice, is given much of the credit for steering US policy on a less unilateralist and hawkish course since he joined the administration two years ago.

Despite Gates’s public opposition to several positions taken by Obama during the election campaign, including the president-elect’s intention to withdraw all US combat forces from Iraq over a fixed 16-month timetable and bar the development of new kinds of nuclear weapons, he is still seen as desirable, both for his competence and experience and as a way to redeem Obama’s promise of an inclusive administration.

And if he decides against Gates – or if Gates declines the offer – Obama may very well choose another Republican realist as secretary of state, while opting for Clinton’s former Navy Secretary, Richard Danzig, for defense secretary. Three have been mentioned so far – the ranking member of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar; outgoing Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel; and the former head of the US European Command, Gen. James L. Jones, who backed Sen. John McCain for president.

All three are solid realists who, significantly, are considered likely to be more evenhanded in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and less inclined toward confrontation with Iran than either the current administration or many liberal interventionists.

If, on the other hand, Gates remains Pentagon chief, Obama is likely to pick a Democrat for secretary of state. Aside from the three Republicans, the names most frequently mentioned, according to Clemons, are the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry, who leans more to the liberal side of the spectrum, and Clinton’s former UN ambassador, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose eagerness to engage US foes puts him more in the realist camp. Another former Clinton UN Amb. Richard Holbrooke, a liberal interventionist par excellence, is also said to be in the running but has reportedly fallen from favor in recent weeks.

James Steinberg, who served as Clinton’s former deputy national security adviser and reportedly leans more to the interventionist side of the spectrum, is said to be the front-runner for Obama’s national security adviser, while Clinton’s former attorney and Democratic realist, Gregg Craig, is likely to be considered for deputy secretary of state.

Clinton’s former top Africa aide and liberal interventionist, Susan Rice, is reportedly in the running for deputy national security adviser and UN ambassador, while three of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisers who have not worked for Clinton, Dennis McDonough, Gen. Scott Gration, and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, a realist who co-authored the Baker-Hamilton report on US policy in Iraq and the Middle East two years ago, are likely to get White House posts.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.