Obama's 'No Drama' Foreign Policy

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Presidents define themselves by whom they appoint: At the very top of the Washington food chain, personalities matter much more than bureaucratic systems. This is particularly true in a second term, when the need to follow opinion polls is far less intense, allowing the president and his new appointees a freer hand.

The foreign policy story of U.S. President Barack Obama's first term could be told through three personalities: former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. Gates was a Republican realist who dominated the first half of Obama's first term. Because of Gates, Obama did not go "soft" as Democrats are supposedly liable to do. Guantanamo Bay prison remained open, there was no initial rush to the exits in Iraq, a robust campaign of assassinations against al Qaeda proceeded apace, and so forth. In other words, rhetoric aside, Obama's first two years were not much different from George W. Bush's last two. Clinton, through her own appointees at State, like Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell (again, it is individuals who especially matter at the top), oriented American foreign policy back toward the Pacific following eight years of Bush-era concentration on Middle Eastern wars. Holbrooke, though, may be the most significant member of the Obama story thus far because of his negative value: He was a larger-than-life personality who was crucially ignored. It was this undermining of Holbrooke by the White House that actually defined the first term. Holbrooke constantly lobbied for an aggressive, solution-oriented, diplomatic approach to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. By thwarting Holbrooke, White House advisers like Tom Donnelly signaled that while practical and hard-edged, Obama was not a risk taker with a grand strategy like Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush.

Judging by his new appointees, Obama's second term will be like his first, only more so. Pragmatism will reign supreme, even as there will be little appetite to take authentically risky initiatives, whether diplomatic, military or otherwise. Some in the media have celebrated Secretary of State-designate John Kerry as bold. Nonsense. Boldness is not necessarily about diplomacy for diplomacy's sake, which is all Kerry seems to be about thus far. Rather, boldness is often about backing up diplomacy with the threat or use of some kind of force in creative combinations toward a larger strategy. The new defense secretary-nominee, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, comes from the same non-ideological, middle-of-the-road school as Gates and current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Hagel is essentially a moderate Republican who is now closer to Democrats (he is distinguished by the fact that -- unusual for Washington -- he actually speaks his mind). Michele Flournoy, whom Obama might conceivably nominate if the Hagel appointment were to falter in the Senate, is a moderate Democrat with an affinity for mid-20th century Republican President Dwight Eisenhower. So the emphasis at the Pentagon will be on smart cost-cutting; withdrawing from a high-maintenance, low-payoff conflict in Afghanistan; and avoiding -- unless absolutely necessary -- a military strike against Iran. The military itself will help in this regard. For the generals will tell both the new defense secretary and Obama that they cannot guarantee success because the enemy, as the cliche goes, gets a vote. To wit, what exactly the Iranians would do in the event of an American strike cannot ultimately be known.

In other words, Stratfor's broad net assessment of a more-or-less intractable Middle East, in which what Washington does or doesn't do matters less than Washington thinks, even as the diversification of energy sources makes the Middle East gradually less vital to Washington, is being borne out through Obama's latest appointees -- people extremely hesitant to embark on any adventures. It seems that Obama intuits this reality and has picked personalities accordingly. Individuals are crucial but are, nevertheless, also products of larger forces. Holbrooke always pushed back energetically against larger forces like ethnic, geographic and historical divisions and was thus a figure beloved of East Coast intellectuals and journalists. Yet, Obama usually ignored his pleas.

Indeed, the East Coast knowledge elite essentially believes that foreign policy is a branch of Holocaust studies, in which a president is judged by his willingness to intervene on behalf of innocent civilians in times of conflict. While it is true that the memory of the Holocaust -- less than a lifetime removed -- must play a role in foreign policy, at the same time it cannot define it. Foreign policy is primarily about the battle of space and power, in which order takes precedence over freedom, and interests take precedence over values. Such a realist mindset is rejected by the media and academia, even as it is quietly practiced throughout government and, especially, by successful foreign policy administrations. Obama's new appointees will practice realism, even as idealism will infuse their remarks at press conferences.

Yes, Obama intervened largely for humanitarian considerations in Libya. But it was a hesitant, unenthusiastic intervention in which no boots were on the ground beyond some Special Operations Forces, ensuring that the United States did not own the security situation of post-Gadhafi Libya. And that situation is, to say the least, messy, with no real government beyond the capital of Tripoli. Syria, which is far more bloody, intractable and regionally fraught than Libya, is unlikely to see a truly robust Western military intervention despite months of pleas on media opinion pages. The path to less bloodshed in Syria, if that is even possible, must lie through diplomacy with Iran, Russia and Turkey. Kerry and Hagel thankfully know that.

In fact, the legacy of the Iraq War still dominates U.S. foreign policy, and will do so throughout the duration of Obama's second term. Even if the new secretaries of state and defense are less cautious than they appear, they will steer away from anything that smells of a large-scale, boots-on-the-ground operation, unless it is within an international coalition enjoying near-global consensus.

Instead, Obama will want to beat his chest in the Pacific, not in the Middle East. One of the unstated reasons why Obama is intent on continuing his emphasis on the Pacific into his second term is because it allows for a demonstration of American military power without the significant risk of war erupting. Moving warships around the South and East China seas incurs little hazard because everyone in the region wants to flex their muscles while avoiding conflict. With the exception of North Korea, there are no rogue or irresponsible states in the Pacific, only modestly, territorially ambitious ones.

Thus, Obama's presidency constitutes not so much leadership as a stewardship of foreign policy. That is to say, foreign policy during his administration is in safe hands, no great initiatives or schemes have been -- or will be -- attempted, and any threats or challenges that arise will be addressed efficiently through procedural responses. It is a foreign policy that operates much like a money market fund: offering little risk, little reward and advisable during times of extreme financial upheaval, yet it loses ground to inflation and other forces over the course of the years.

Meanwhile, the journalistic and intellectual class will continue to agitate for action. And the president and his new team will continue to disappoint them most of the time, just as his old team did. Obama's new team understands just to what degree risks outweigh rewards and how limited the options usually are -- especially when taking into account the public's severely reduced, post-Iraq desire for sacrifice. The media may turn out to be severely disappointed with Kerry and Hagel, and that might actually -- much of the time, at least -- turn out for the good.

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