US President Barack Obama has promised make major changes to American foreign policy. Although it remains far too early to tell what exactly will happen, the initial indications are that the promised changes will be mostly cosmetic in nature. This is bad news for rogue states like Iran and North Korea, not to mention Islamic terrorists, who had hoped that the Obama administration would give them free reign. It is also likely to disappoint European and American leftists, who have been dreaming of a multilateral pacifistic world order where swords are beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
To be sure, the tenor of Obama's foreign policy will almost certainly be more appealing to those who disagreed with the tone of his predecessor. But Obama's America will be no less interventionist than in the past.
Obama has never called into question the basic premise of US military interventionism around the world. He has pledged to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan, for example. Moreover, in his inauguration speech, Obama promised to continue to pursue the "war on terror" unabated, even if he tries to do so in a style that is different than in the past. Obama also believes in America's role as the "global policeman."
But the best indicator of what direction American foreign policy will take lies with the composition of Obama's national security team, which is a formidable group of hawkish experts that will be no pushover in the pursuit of US national interests. Obama's decision to appoint Washington insiders like Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State and Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff, as well as his decision to keep Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, indicates a strong desire by Obama to maintain continuity in American foreign policy making. It also implies that Obama's foreign policy will be centrist, not leftist, in nature.
Indeed, the early indications are that Obama will pursue a foreign policy that is similar to that pushed by US President Bill Clinton, which although ostensibly multilateral, it was also highly interventionist and ceded little ground to allies who refused to fall into line with American priorities.
These realities will be particularly disconcerting for Europeans who for many years have used their dislike of US President George W Bush as a convenient excuse for not contributing more to the burdens of fostering transatlantic security. European politicians now find themselves with an American president who is far more popular in Europe than they are, and who may soon begin making difficult demands on them.
Some Europeans will be in for a particularly rude awakening. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for example, wrote an audaciously pompous "open letter" to Obama that was published in the leftwing magazine Der Spiegel. Steinmeier said Obama could count on Germany's support ("standing shoulder to shoulder"), provided that Obama pursues a foreign policy that is in line with the priorities of Germany's pacifist political left wing. It is highly unlikely that this is Obama's vision for improving transatlantic relations.
Unfortunately for Steinmeier and other Europeans like him, neither Germany nor Europe is a truly indispensable partner for the United States. Indeed, the main focus of Obama's foreign policy will almost certainly be the Asia-Pacific region. The implication is that if Europeans refuse to step up to the plate when Obama asks for their help, Europe will remain on the sidelines of geopolitics just as it was during the Bush administration. In this context, Obama's foreign policy will not differ very much from that of his immediate predecessor.
What follows is a brief examination of the key players who will be formulating American foreign policy during the next few years.
US President Barack Obama
Obama's main pronouncements on US foreign policy have focused on Afghanistan and the Middle East (Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict). He has also talked in more abstract terms about the need for America to "rebuild" its image around the world.
Obama's first order of business will be to fix the US economy, which will determine the viability of the rest of his agenda, both domestic and foreign. If Obama fails to find an effective way to get the economy back on track during his first year in office, he faces the danger of losing political momentum ahead of midterm elections in 2010. If there is no marked improvement in the economy by then, political opposition to Obama will begin to mount, and he risks becoming a one-term president.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama has said that Afghanistan will be one of his highest priorities. He believes that the United States should redouble its commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan and to pushing Pakistan to eliminate terrorist havens along the Afghan border. Obama is planning to send as many as 30,000 additional American soldiers to Afghanistan, doubling the current US presence in the country. This implies that rather than reversing the policies of the Bush administration, Obama intends to pursue a highly interventionist policy in Afghanistan.
Obama has also said that he would like to withdraw American troops from Iraq. But he also knows that a premature military departure will create a power vacuum that will be harmful to US interests in the Middle East, especially since Iran is likely to be the main beneficiary of such a policy. As a result, Obama's policies on Iraq are likely to be far more cautious than his campaign rhetoric would lead one to believe.
And although Obama has called for dialogue with Iran, he has also vowed to "do everything that's required" to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Calling Iran "a threat to all of us," during the presidential campaign Obama declared that "we will never take military options off the table." In other words, Obama's position that is not very much different from that of the Bush administration.
Obama has also promised to be a fervent supporter of Israel. During a visit to Israel in July 2008, Obama said that "if somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." Just like President Bush, Obama also supports the $30 billion military aid package to Israel over the next ten years.
Obama has promised to engage allies and enemies with a different tenor than that pursued by his predecessor. Although Obama is indeed likely to tone down some of the strong rhetoric that has characterized American foreign policy making in recent years, the substance of his policies is unlikely to change very much, if at all. The simple reason for this is that US interests are generally consistent over time and are not prone to abrupt changes from president to president.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
Although Rahm Emanuel is known for his partisan rhetoric, his political views are largely centrist. As Obama's most powerful White House advisor, Emanuel will have a tremendous impact on shaping Obama's views on foreign policy.
In this context, Emanuel is an unwavering supporter of Israel (he even volunteered as a mechanic in northern Israel during the first Gulf War). His father Benjamin was a member of the Irgun, a militant Zionist group that contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Emanuel also has strong ties to pro-Israel "lobby" groups in the United States. The implication is that Emanuel will almost certainly influence Obama to pursue policies that are decidedly pro-Israel, and that he will move to counteract those within the Obama administration who want to steer the president into a more pro-Palestinian position. The end result is that Obama's policies vis-à-vis Israel are likely to be very similar to those pursued by the Bush administration.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
Nowhere is the evidence of Obama's desire to maintain policy continuity more evident than with his decision to retain Robert Gates, who has been defense secretary since President Bush appointed him in 2006. The decision to ask Gates to continue in his job as defense secretary (as the president's chief adviser on military and defense issues) should also boost Obama's credibility with the US military.
Gates maintains the view of the Bush administration that the primary military challenge faced by the United States today is the global war on terror. Writing in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Gates says the war on terror is "in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign -- a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and those of moderation."
The main challenges for Gates will be the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gates says Obama's plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq in 16 months (combat troops make up only about one-third of the 140,000 US troops currently in Iraq) is currently being studied at the Pentagon. Many senior commanders believe the withdrawal is risky because of the potential reversal of the security gains that were achieved since 2007. "Though violence has remained low, there is still the potential for setbacks, and there may be hard days ahead for our troops," Gates has said. In any case, it is highly likely that Obama's Iraq withdrawal plan will be delayed until after a series of elections in Iraq in 2009.
In another sign of policy continuity with the Bush administration, Gates said missile strikes in Pakistan would continue in an effort to root out members of al Qaeda. "Let me just say, both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda is. And we will continue to pursue this," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
On Iran, Gates remains skeptical that Obama will be able to achieve a thaw the US-Iranian relationship anytime soon. In a recent speech, Gates accused Iran of fomenting instability in Iraq and continuing to pursue both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Iran's "every move seems designed to create maximum anxiety in the international community," Gates said.
Gates has also expressed worries about efforts by Iran to gain influence in Latin America. "I'm concerned about the level of, frankly, subversive activity the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places in Latin America, particularly South America and Central America," Gates said. "They're opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts behind which they interfere with what is going on in some of these countries," he said.
These comments indicate that Gates may be trying to discourage Obama from abandoning the hard line policy of coercive diplomacy toward Iran.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Hillary Rodham Clinton has articulated a global role for the United States that is based on the idea of "American pre-eminence," a position that is neo-conservative in its essence. She is also a staunch supporter of Israel and sympathizes with the Jewish state's need to defend itself.
Clinton also has a strong record of support for American military interventionism. As a US Senator, for example, she approved the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She has also been a fierce critic of Iran.
Indeed, all indications are that Clinton will pursue a foreign policy similar to that of her husband during the Clinton administration. In practice this means that although she is likely to try to work through the United Nations, she will also be in favor of unilateral policies if the United States fails to gain support through multilateralism.
Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell
President Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell is an Arab-American whose mother was an immigrant textile worker from Lebanon. Some analysts say his Arab roots will influence Mitchell, a former US Senator, to take a harder line against Israel in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.Obama, however, has already recognized that an Israeli-Palestinian deal on a two-state settlement is not a realistic goal for now. Therefore, all indications are that Mitchell will continue with the longstanding American policy of ensuring Israeli security above all other concerns. During the Clinton administration, for example, Mitchell led an American fact-finding commission designed to find solutions to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. His recommendations, which were published in 2001, stressed the need for Palestinians to implement the rule of law and crack down on terrorism.
During his first trip to the Middle East as Obama's envoy, Mitchell pursued the same policy established by the Bush administration, namely he refused to talk to the Hamas terrorist organization. Moreover, Mitchell sounded a realistic and sober tone, warning that Obama's push for Israeli-Palestinian peace will be fraught with hurdles and setbacks.
In any case, Mitchell's "peacemaking" efforts will have to wait until the Israeli elections in February. Benjamin Netanyahu, who is widely expected to become the next Israeli prime minister, favors postponing an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement indefinitely.
Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke
Holbrooke is a top-ranking American diplomat with extensive experience in Asian affairs. He also shaped US policy towards Europe during the Clinton administration, by promoting NATO enlargement as well as its approach to the war in Bosnia. He later became the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Holbrooke's hawkish foreign policy views are generally neo-conservative in outlook and in many cases are not very different from those of the Bush administration.
During his farewell press conference just before leaving the United Nations, Holbrooke said that "Iraq will be one of the major issues facing the incoming Bush administration at the United Nations." He also said that "Saddam Hussein's activities continue to be unacceptable and, in my view, dangerous to the region and, indeed, to the world, not only because he possesses the potential for weapons of mass destruction but because of the very nature of his regime. His willingness to be cruel internally is not unique in the world, but the combination of that and his willingness to export his problems makes him a clear and present danger at all times."
As special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke will play a major role in American foreign policymaking during the Obama administration. His job will be to coordinate the US government's efforts to stabilize Central Asia. The main objective will be to establish a stable and legitimate political order in Afghanistan backed by capable indigenous security forces.
In practice this means that Holbrooke, who will have direct access to the White House, will be calling for more European support. Most of the European troops in Afghanistan are limited to peacekeeping, rebuilding and training missions, and are banned from participating in the heavy fighting in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who presides over a "grand coalition" between her conservative CDU party and the SPD on the left, is facing re-election in September. She has already will not yield to pressure from Obama to send troops to fight and will give him the same response she gave to the Bush administration.
The problem will come to a head in April, when leaders of the 26-member NATO alliance gather in France and Germany for a summit to set strategy for the next two years. Afghanistan (and Europe's response to the problems there) will, more than any other foreign policy issue, determine the course of transatlantic relations during Obama's presidency.
National Security Advisor General James Jones
As national security advisor, James Jones, a retired United States Marine Corps four-star general and a former commander of NATO, holds one of the most important foreign policy posts in the White House. Admired by Democrats as well as Republicans, Jones brings particular expertise on Afghanistan and Iraq, two of Obama's overseas priorities.
Jones served as the Bush administration's special envoy for Middle East security and chaired the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, a blue-ribbon panel appointed by Congress that assessed the readiness of Iraqi troops.
Jones has warned that the consequences of failure in Afghanistan are just as serious as they are in Iraq. "Symbolically, it's more the epicenter of terrorism than Iraq. If we don't succeed in Afghanistan, you're sending a very clear message to the terrorist organizations that the US, the UN and the 37 countries with troops on the ground can be defeated," he has said.
In his previous capacity as NATO Commander, Jones lobbied long and hard for Europeans to do more in Afghanistan. Jones, who has lived and worked in Europe for many years and speaks fluent French, arguably understands the Europeans better than they do themselves. This implies that Jones is unlikely to be moved by European arguments that they cannot play a more constructive role in Afghanistan.
Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security John Brennan
As Obama's top adviser on counterterrorism, John Brennan will have an influential role on shaping US policy on the Middle East and on Iran. Brennan was forced to pull out of contention for the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency because he defended the CIA's long-standing practice of forced renditions of terrorism suspects for interrogations.
Brennan has argued that the United States should tone down its rhetoric toward Iran. He has also said that the Obama administration must "be willing to exercise strategic patience" with Iran. Brennan says the goal should be to strike a more nuanced policy by entering into a direct dialogue with Iranian moderates.
Far more controversially, Brennan has called for an increased role for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanese politics. "Washington will need to convince Israeli officials that they must abandon their aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force," Brennan said. That will be unlikely, especially if Netanyahu becomes the prime minister of Israel. Israel views Hezbollah as its mortal enemy.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair
Retired Navy Admiral Dennis Blair fills the top intelligence job in the United States. The position of director of national intelligence was created in 2004 to oversee the operations of the Central Intelligence Agency and the 15 other agencies that make up the US intelligence community.
A former commander of the US Pacific Command, Blair has strong allies among both Democrats and Republicans. He is said to have impressed Obama with his knowledge of the intelligence agencies and ideas for streamlining and improving the often unwieldy US intelligence apparatus. Blair was a military liaison at the CIA in charge of coordinating intelligence between the spy agency and Pentagon during the Clinton administration.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Blair said he plans to examine whether certain coercive techniques such as water-boarding have been effective in eliciting critical intelligence. He said that the tactical benefit of obtaining such intelligence should be weighed against the impact of their use on America's reputation.
As an expert on Asia, Blair has encouraged a benign view of China as a threat to the United States and has proposed strategies for reducing China-US hostility through regional cooperative agreements.
Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta
A former congressman and White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta will take control of the Central Intelligence Agency, the troubled US government agency most directly responsible for hunting senior leaders of Al Qaeda around the world. He will report directly to the Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.
Panetta, who has been criticized for his lack of direct intelligence experience, has a politically close relationship with Obama, which could increase the president's influence within the broader intelligence community. Indeed, Obama appears to believe that a CIA director who understands politics may be better equipped to carry out his national security agenda than one who understands espionage. In the past, both Democratic and Republican presidents have had trouble imposing accountability at the CIA, which has a history of hostility toward outsiders.
The CIA, which has some 20,000 employees around the globe, has seen its role reduced dramatically in recent years and CIA insiders fear the trend will continue under Obama.
One of Panetta's main tasks will be to reform the CIA's controversial detention and interrogation program.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice
Susan Rice, who was a member of the National Security Council under President Clinton, was one of Obama's leading foreign policy advisers during the presidential campaign. As US Ambassador to the United Nations, Rice's main foreign policy task will be to try to fix the troubled relationship between the United States and the United Nations. Rice will be one of the most visible faces of the Obama administration to the outside world apart from Hillary Clinton.
But it remains unclear whether Rice will succeed. She has pushed for aggressive action against genocide, and has spoken out in favor of the unilateral use of military force, especially against the Islamic regime in Sudan, if the United States fails to gain support at the United Nations. These positions are not likely to win her many friends in the UN General Assembly.
On Iran, Rice has warned that Tehran must meet UN Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment before any talks on its nuclear program. This is a clear change from Obama's earlier declaration that he would engage Iran "without preconditions." Rice said that "dialogue and diplomacy must go hand in hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council," she said.
Most of the people that Obama has appointed to key foreign policy positions in his administration are political centrists who are largely committed to maintaining US hegemony in world affairs. His choice of advisers also indicates that what Obama promised as a candidate will be far different from what he will deliver as president.
Although the tone of American foreign policy is likely to change during the next several years, the substance (the maintenance of US interests around the world) will remain mostly the same.