international analysis and commentary

Obama and the team: advice that counts


Now that the historical election and inauguration of Barack Obama are behind us, it is time to start working directly with his team.

A lot has been said and written about the individuals filling the key positions, but less so about the likely functioning of the foreign policy team as a whole. We should not forget that most US administrations go down in history as collective entities, as it should be despite the central role of the Chief Executive. It is sometimes the case that one other name becomes permanently attached to that of the President himself – such as Truman-Acheson, Nixon-Kissinger, of course Bush-Cheney; or to a lesser extent Bush(senior)-Baker and Clinton-Gore. This is because personalities do matter, and one or more key advisers can often complement the skills and deficiencies of the President, creating a unique blend.

Then there are administrations which experience particularly acute crises or great moments of opportunity, such as the 1929 financial crash, Pearl Harbour, Bretton Woods, the Cuban missile crisis, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9-11. These presidencies are defined by the worldview that the “inner circle” adopts as a set of guiding principles under extraordinary circumstances. For instance, it would be almost impossible to comprehend the sequence of America’s deepening involvement in the Vietnam War under John Fitzgerald Kennedy without a full account of the intellectual role played by Robert McNamara and a set of like-minded officials with very strong intellectual credentials.

To try to better understand the Obama administration, we need to envisage what might happen when decisions must be made under pressure – i.e. when the neatly prioritized items of the electoral platform become nearly irrelevant. There, the personal instincts of the President are certainly crucial, but tend to be embedded in some policy framework provided by his closest and most trusted advisers, sometimes including mid-level officials and even speechwriters. The best known example is probably that of a young career diplomat who conceptualized what would become the “containment doctrine” right after WWII, whose name was George Kennan.

In any case, almost invariably an inner circle defines the nature of the problems at hand and translates general preferences into a menu of policy options. Only within such a framework can a President make his personal views and style felt.

To get a vivid sense of this process, just think of how much the Neocons have done to transform G.W. Bush’s “humble foreign policy” into the “Global War on Terror”, “shock & awe”, and the “freedom agenda”. It is worth underlying that the early policy approach of the Bush administration was not magically changed by “events”, but was instead deliberately corrected and then actively promoted by a few officials and advisers in key positions.

Whatever the specific events that drive the transformation and the style of the bureaucratic battles inside each administration, turning general ideas into policy choices is what makes (and breaks) a presidency.

If we look at the Obama team in this light, the figure of Hillary Clinton clearly stands out as a political and intellectual heavyweight. In this respect, the rockstar reception she was given by normally sober employees, as she entered the State Department on her first day on the job, should mean something. Secretary Clinton’s pretty hawkish record on most foreign policy issues, and the fact that she maintains a solid political base in the US, create a complex mix. One thing we know for sure is that she will work hard to return the State Department to the leading position it has lost over the past eight years. Unlike either Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, the current Secretary of has plenty of political capital to spend as she struggles for influence with the Pentagon and possibly the White House – where the National Security Adviser sometimes becomes the main counterpart – and counterweight – to the “diplomat in chief”.

There are reasons to suspect that President Obama will try, at times, to deflect the inevitable criticisms on specific foreign policy initiatives by letting Hillary take center stage and be a lightning rod. In other words, he may be tempted to argue – implicitly, we should hope – that any failure is the Secretary’s fault but of course any success is the President’s responsibility.

As for the Pentagon, Robert Gates is most likely a two-year term Secretary of Defence, and so far he has made very enlightened statements regarding the primary role of State at the helm of America’s foreign policy in all dimensions. Yet, the very large “footprint” the US military will continue to have in both Iraq and Afghanistan (at least over the next four years) ensures that diplomacy on the ground will have to be conducted in close cooperation with the uniformed officials, starting with the famed General Petraeus. Even Hillary Clinton will have to accept the Pentagon’s constant interference with the most contentious decisions, such as the timetable for reducing the presence in Iraq and the plans to use to the best effect the announced Afghan surge.

In this context of large and protracted military operations, we should expect that National Security Adviser James Jones, who is also a former NATO Supreme Allied Commander and a retired Marine, will try to play a significant role.

Then, of course there is a Vice President whose main expertise is indeed foreign policy. Joseph Biden will work hard, as most VP have done in the past, to find a suitable niche for himself in one or two policy areas.

Lastly, we should not forget the high profile special envoys, such as Richard Holbrooke. They may gain sufficient clout to become, one day, serious candidates for the positions that may become available, such as that of Defence Secretary once Robert Gates will have performed his function of ensuring continuity in a wartime transition.

After all, we may be witnessing the start of the Obama-Clinton-Biden-Jones administration. And this is only the top level, initial lineup. This President’s personality and symbolism has rightly focussed our attention so far, but it is time to carefully watch the advisers, and the whole team in action.