Wednesday, April 27, 2011
In case you haven't heard yet, the President is making some serious moves with his national security team. In the past 24 hours we've heard that AMB Crocker is going to take over as Ambassador to Afghanistan, CIA Director Leon Panetta is going to DoD, and GEN Petraeus is going to CIA, with many more announcements to come, I'm sure. I'm a big fan of all three of these gentlemen - all of them have spent a lifetime of service to the United States and are extremely competent. They are, however, and like the preponderance of the President's national security team, products of previous administrations (Bush, Clinton, and Bush to be specific). This led me to make the following statement on Twitter: "Obama's nat sec team are almost entirely from prev admins. Not how one leaves their mark on the world."
Ex promptly and rightly jumped on me about that, using the Truman administration as an example. I'm sure that's not the only example. So as an universal statement, I was incorrect. I do believe that the Truman example is not exactly apt for the current situation. Truman faced a drastically changing world at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War and guided his team to establish the basis of U.S. policy for the next forty odd years. While the world is constantly changing, Obama ran on a platform of changing how the United States approaches its defense and foreign policy engagement with the world in a relatively (operative word here) static global environment since 2001 (the Arab Spring may be the exception to this, but we're yet to see how the administration handles it in its totality beyond supporting European military operations). In spite of that platform of change, Obama filled his team with old hands from either the Clinton or Bush administrations or Congress.
I don't see that President Obama has yet left an indelible mark on the world - certainly not as was anticipated - nor is on a glide path to do so. I see that Guantanamo Bay is still open with military trials in the works, we are still in Iraq and have hinted to the Iraqis that we'd like to stay longer, we have escalated in Afghanistan and are talking about being there for the foreseeable future, we still do not have effective engagement with Iran or North Korea, and we have seen our relations with the UK decrease significantly. On the positive side, our relations with France have improved significantly, relations with Russia and China seem to have improved moderately, global public opinion of the U.S. has increased somewhat, and we haven't yet screwed the pooch on the Arab Spring. All things considered, it seems to me that the Obama administration has effectively maintained (second term) Bush admin policies with a smattering of Clinton policies. Not every president needs one, but there certainly isn't an Obama Doctrine. Yet.
I also question the likelihood of one coming about under the current circumstances if he keeps selecting old hands from other admins in the absence of a serious external cause for change (such as another Cold War or 9/11). Granted, an obstinate Congress is a huge impediment to significant change, but these old hands haven't produced the changes Obama's base was hoping for. Reshuffling those old hands doesn't seem to be the method to drive change at this point. Now to pose a question or two to our readers: Is my assessment of the Obama administration accurate? If it is, is the lack of change at least partially because there is little new blood in the national security team? If it isn't accurate, how has he left his mark or how will he and what role does his national security team play in that? If anyone actually reads this, I'm sure it will elicit opinions, so fire away (in accordance with our commenting policy of course).
Of course, this all raises an important issue: where do you find people to fill the highest positions in government if they haven't proven themselves in previous administrations? It's not the President's fault that he's using his predecessors' people - they seem to be the only folks most people trust enough to lead these huge organizations. I haven't the faintest idea where alternate candidates for these positions would come from - so in that I sympathize with the President and don't blame for just moving around those who are already around. He's also not the only president to do this - far from it. At some point though, age will require an infusion of new blood - specifically those people who now hold Deputy Assistant Secretary positions (or did in the Bush administration for the Republicans), but the line-up of the top jobs has been essentially the same for the past 10 years (or 20 in some cases). I don't know how to break this paradigm, or even that it should be broken (maybe expertise and experience is more important than change), but serious internal change, without an external catalyst (such as Truman experienced), in how we do business with the world is most likely to come from people who didn't play a fundamental role to establish the world we are in now.