Is President Obama’s national security team too like-minded and conservative about the limits of American power?
- By James TraubJames Traub is a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly. Follow his Twitter feed at @JamesTraub1.
On Feb. 20, 2008, Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel found themselves standing on a remote and snowbound mountain road in the vast wilderness of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. They had been flying back from an army outpost to Bagram Air Base when a snowstorm forced their helicopter to make an emergency landing. Their lives were never in danger; but three or four hours would elapse, and night would fall, before a convoy from Bagram could reach the group and ferry them back to safety. Naturally, one wonders what these three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said to one another while awaiting rescue. I recently learned the answer.
After a heartwarming anecdote about how Grandpa Al survived the Donora Blizzard of 1938, Biden said, "Some day soon, I’m going to be vice president, you’re going to be secretary of state, and you’re going to be secretary of defense — and we’re going to show that bright and clean and nice-looking black guy how to run the world."
Okay, that part I haven’t been able to corroborate yet, but the rest of the story has been the subject of news accounts. Hagel told me about the trip in a 2009 conversation. He also told me that he and Biden had traveled all over the world together, that nobody knew national security like Biden did and that the vice president was dead right about the futility of an ambitious counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Oh, and on the 2008 trip, which had also included India and Pakistan, Biden and Kerry had concluded that the United States had to make a large-scale aid commitment to Pakistan — the origin of the legislation ultimately known as Kerry-Lugar-Berman.
With Kerry now confirmed as secretary of state, and Hagel now undergoing a ritual scourging which will almost certainly lead to confirmation as secretary of defense, Barack Obama’s national security team will be lead by an old boys club whose members have traveled, advised, and pooled ideas with each other for years. The fourth member of the club, national security advisor Tom Donilon, said to me a few years back that he could hardly remember a time when he didn’t know Biden. Donilon’s new deputy, Antony Blinken, is Biden’s former chief foreign policy aide. Biden once told me that he was one of Kerry’s few good friends in the Senate, and saw himself as Kerry’s "interlocutor" with the White House.
I always thought that the "team of rivals" imagery from 2009 was way overdone, but it’s true that none of the senior figures knew one another well, and Obama had to deputize Biden to smooth friction among them. That’s over; now the national security team looks like a golfing foursome.
Does it matter? In another interview, in 2011, Hagel told me that Kerry, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "bolstered Joe Biden’s global view of strategic issues and international affairs." Hagel’s point was that Biden very much needed the help, since the people then closest to President Obama — David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel — knew very little about the world. Strategic thinking had been missing from the White House, Hagel said, since the administration of the first George Bush. Hagel was hardly the only person to complain that foreign policy in Obama’s first term was driven by political calculation and ad hoc reactions. It’s reasonable to hope that the execution of foreign policy in Obama II will be less reactive and more consistent.
But what about the content? The first thing that needs to be said is that the identity and views of Obama’s chief advisors will not change the president’s obvious wish to narrow the scope of American foreign policy: to withdraw from existing military entanglements and avoid new ones, so as to save his political capital for the epochal battles to come over taxes, entitlements, immigration, and gun control. And it’s hard to believe that an increasingly confident president will choose to exercise less, rather than more, control over the formulation of national security policy. If the Afghanistan policy debate of 2009 occurred today, Obama would wrap it up much more quickly and decisively.
That said, foreign policy, unlike domestic affairs, is fundamentally unpredictable, and the president is bound to face a great many decisions for which he is unprepared. The collective voice of The Team of Buddies could still tip the balance. And in many ways it will be a collective voice. Not only Hagel, but also Kerry, told me that he thought Biden was right on Afghanistan — though Kerry said that he felt that he should not publicly oppose Obama, at that early moment in his tenure, on a supreme question of war and peace. All three, that is, have enough experience of the world to be wary of grand schemes, and to be inclined to choose the more modest of proffered alternatives. All three are classic "realists" in their regard for prudence, which Hans Morgenthau described as the statesman’s watchword. When Hagel talked about "strategic thinking" he meant "seasoned professionalism" rather than, say, "intellectual coherence." Kerry and Biden would subscribe to the same definition.
The differences among them strike me as temperamental rather than ideological, though being out of power has given Hagel the luxury to utter heterodox opinions which he is now furiously reeling in, like his skepticism about the effectiveness of tough sanctions on Iran. Among the three, Hagel has perhaps the most deep-seated conviction about the limits of American power, which is what the conservatives who are gunning for him find the most intolerable. He told me in 2009, at a time when Biden was shuttling between Washington and Baghdad, that "there’s very little we can do" about Iraq.
If Hagel would be the strongest advocate of "do less," Kerry would be the proponent of "do more." On my 2011 trip with him to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he told me that a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to a civil war, with disastrous consequences for the United States as well as for Afghans. Kerry might be inclined to leave more troops there than either Biden or Hagel. And unlike those two, Kerry also supported the intervention in Libya. Kerry seems to have more of his foreign-policy idealism left intact than Biden does, or than Hagel ever had. It is easier to imagine him calling for a significant American role in a future Mali-type engagement than Biden or Hagel. Still, these are differences at the margin.
Of course, Kerry, Hagel, and Biden are not very much different from Clinton, Gates, and Biden. Perhaps the biggest difference is Obama. Back in the Team of Rivals era, Obama appeared to have surrounded himself with thinkers older and more conventional than himself in order to counterbalance his own penchant for the visionary. But Obama is quite a bit older and grayer himself. He sees less opportunity in the world, and more threat. Asked by The New Republic about his own moral calculus on acting to protect the rebels in Syria, Obama said that the torrent of frightening news he receives every day had made him "more mindful probably than most of us" of America’s limitations. Sounds positively Hagelian.
The Team of Buddies, in short, are unlikely to seriously disagree with each other, or with President Obama. That should make for a smoothly carpentered, George Bush-the-elder foreign policy over the next fours years. Not bold, not brave; but well managed.
At this moment in history, Obama may need a goad more than a brake — a reminder that despite the palpable weariness of the American people, much of the world still looks to this country for acts of leadership.