international analysis and commentary

What Obama’s cabinet choices will tell us about his foreign policy

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One of my many problems with the world of academia is that it seeks to remove the vital human factor from policy-making, as if broad historical forces are all that matter in explaining a country’s foreign policy. Conversely, those of us who have actually been involved in such efforts know that it is often the personal that (for good or ill) triumphs over such broader concerns. In Washington, it is people who make policy; a president’s personnel decisions inevitably telegraph a coming administration’s policy positions. As such, it is instructive for us to play Washington’s favorite parlor game, “Who gets what?” if we are to understand the likely trajectory of the President’s second term.

It is a measure of how quickly the world is changing that the single most important cabinet pick for President Obama may well be replacing Timothy Geithner at Treasury. For as America and the rest of the world continue to struggle with the post-Lehman crash aftermath, the Treasury Secretary, more than anyone else, will be in the trenches determining if the American ship can economically right its course.

Jack Lew, currently President Obama’s Chief of Staff, seems to have the inside track. Formerly Director of the Budget for the Obama White House, Lew has the President’s ear, a crucial prerequisite for the success of any cabinet official. Intimately versed in the day-to-day workings of the White House, Lew is seen as a staunch Obama loyalist, perhaps the single decisive criteria for a presidency that, in its Chicago-style roots, values unquestioning loyalty.

The only major downside for Lew is that he is disliked by a good number of Republicans on the Hill, being seen as playing an obstructionist role in recent efforts by both parties to craft a grand fiscal bargain. Picking Lew would not be sending a bipartisan signal to Republicans on the Hill. Rather, Lew’s ascension would convey an uncompromising stance, with the White House determined to broadly have its way over sorting out the country’s fiscal and debt mess. Expect more talk of higher taxes and precious little of entitlement reform.

It would seem Senator John Kerry at present has the inside track for becoming the next Secretary of Defense, as a weary Leon Panetta heads back to California. In terms of positives, few know Congress as well as the current Senate Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, a treasured asset in negotiating the spending cuts the Pentagon will have to endure over the coming years. Kerry has the gravitas and the stature to seamlessly fit in at the DoD, and the authority that comes from actually having held elected office.

The primary downside of picking Kerry is political. If he were to leave the Senate, a special election would have to be called in Massachusetts to pick his replacement, one that newly ousted but still popular Republican Scott Brown might win. This seems somewhat less important, given the Democrats’ near-miraculous pick up of two seats in the recent election that left them with a comfortable working majority of 55-45; the loss of a seat is now manageable. Also, in Democratic-to-its-core Massachusetts, it would be perilous to bet on a Republican, Scott Brown or no. If Kerry is given the job, look for him (like Panetta) to focus on guiding the Pentagon through the bureaucratic thicket of Congress, endeavoring to make the coming cuts rational and limited. Running the Department of Defense remains increasingly a management job.

Finally, despite all the tumult over Benghazi (or perhaps because of it) look for President Obama to name current UN Ambassador Susan Rice as the new Secretary of State. Very popular with the Democratic base (having long been a foreign policy partisan), Rice is by far the closest to the President of the senior foreign policy practitioners on the Obama team, having been with him since his first improbable run in Iowa in 2008, when all the smart Democratic money was on Hillary Clinton. Fanatical and early devotion to the leader is again what gives Ambassador Rice the edge.

However, the Benghazi terrorist attack looms over her like a vulture. Sent out (as the good partisan she is) to repeat the administration’s credulity-stretching talking points that the attack which killed four Americans was somehow the result of anger at a crude video attacking the Prophet Mohammed, Rice appeared on all five major American Sunday news shows, maximizing her visibility at the worst possible time. Once this explanation was exposed for the nonsense it so obviously was, Republicans started pouncing. Incensed, President Obama used the occasion of his first post-victory Press Conference to defend Rice, making her appointment all the more likely.

But beyond the politics, a simple question remains. If Rice did not know details of what had occurred in Benghazi why had she been sent out to do the administration’s bidding in the first place, in effect misleading the American people? If President Obama wants to pick a fight with Senate Republicans over Ambassador Rice’s nomination, he will surely win. However, with Rice under oath the unsavory Benghazi story will continue to fester, stealing all the oxygen from the fiscal cliff peril that actually confronts the country.

Conclusion: A Wilsonian in an Age of Austerity
One only has to look at the alternatives to Lew, Kerry and Rice, to see that three different cabinet choices would make for a very different second term. If former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (he of the oft-cited Bowles-Simpson report to stabilize the American debt) were to be made Treasury Secretary instead, addressing the country’s long-term debt problem (the dagger pointed at the heart of America’s long-run preeminence) would vault to the top of the queue in terms of the Obama White House’s priorities. Likewise, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel running the Pentagon would wrong-foot the Republicans, bolstering the President’s rhetorical plea for genuine bipartisanship with concrete action. 

Instead, it looks as if the favorites for the main cabinet positions confirm above all else the premium the White House places on loyalty (rather than say independent-mindedness). Instead of a debt reducing, bipartisan second term, rather it looks to be the time of the triumph of the partisans. Given how badly extreme partisanship has failed both parties over the past four years, the future does not look particularly rosy.

One last tension intrudes on these likely choices. Susan Rice – tough, abrasive, strong-willed – is far more ideological in terms of foreign policy than Secretary Clinton ever was. A card-carrying Wilsonian, it was Rice who persuaded President Obama to intervene in Libya, and has consistently been a champion of American humanitarian intervention. In a world where America suddenly finds itself on a budget, it remains highly unlikely (as was true regarding the neocons) that the country can afford a foreign policy so divorced from American interests. Given this seminal tension, the Obama-Rice bond will surely be tested. Majorities in both parties need to wake up to the fact that they days of running an expansive foreign policy are over.