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Monday, November 24, 2008

Obama's foreign policy team

Next week, apparently, President-elect Barack Obama will be announcing his foreign policy team. Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to be named Secretary of State and other so-called "liberal hawks" (and Clinton loyalists) are expected to win positions throughout the State Department, National Security Council, and Department of Defense.

Spencer Ackerman explains the implications:
Some Obama loyalists pointed to a 2007 memo written by Harvard’s Samantha Power — a former leading Obama adviser who resigned from the campaign after making an untoward remark about Clinton — that summarized the Obama campaign’s ideological meta-critique of many of the people who might staff a Clinton-run State Dept. Titled “Conventional Wisdom vs. the Change We Need,” the campaign released Power’s memo to the press after the Clinton campaign labeled Obama naive for proposing negotiations with dictators without preconditions; for ruling out the use of nuclear weapons on terrorist training camps; and for proposing highly-conditioned military strikes in Pakistan against senior Al Qaeda operatives.

“It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of U.S. foreign policy,” writes Power, who declined to speak for this story. “The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced and even na├»ve.”

Some in the Obama camp are left wondering whether picking Clinton as secretary of state represents an acquiescence to such conventional wisdom. “That memo was emblematic in many ways of the difference between the two groups,” said a Democratic foreign-policy expert and Obama loyalist.
Count me as someone who thinks that "some in the Obama camp" have this upside down.

Obama's foreign policy plans are going to be America's foreign policy. Sure, every President rejects some campaign rhetoric. Bill Clinton, for example, famously reversed his pre-election position on China. However, Obama promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months, end the mindset that got the U.S. into that war in the first place, and behave as a foreign policy pragmatist. He was by no stretch a liberal hawk and nearly all of his foreign policy advisors in the campaign opposed the Iraq war. He has not backed down from any of these positions since the election and there's no reason to think that he will.

Thus, liberal hawks like Hillary Clinton embedded in prominent foreign policy positions in an Obama administration will be expected to administer the President-elect's planned transformation of US foreign policy.

While Obama supporters (dare I call them doves?) worry that their man has abandoned them, I think this is potentially a brilliant strategy. The Democratic party was split nearly 50-50 in the primary season and some of the divide reflected foreign policy differences (though probably not all that much). To the extent that Obama was less hawkish -- and I think that he was -- then what better way to reorient the party than to include the most prominent political opponent as a key policy figure?

Hillary Clinton's career success as Secretary of State will be tied to the career success of Barack Obama as President. Clinton and her loyalists will not likely dissent publicly (at least not too loudly) if they are part of the team. All of them will have a personal stake in making sure that US (i.e. Obama) foreign policy succeeds on their watch. None will want to seem like a backstabber or troublemaker. Plus, they must realize that Obama's approach was popular with the American electorate. And those who are insufficiently enthused should rightly fear that they will be tossed aside.

In sum, I don't fear a new team of rivals, at least not on foreign policy. Rather, I see these likely Clinton-team appointments as a reflection of a unified Democratic party, about to take office, ready to implement a brand new set of policies.

In two months, I predict that the chattering classes will be talking about how new U.S. foreign policymakers are effectively tossing aside many of the policies of George W. Bush. With that unified project in mind, this Clinton-Obama "divide" can be set aside.


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