Team Obama

What do Barack Obama’s foreign policy appointments tell us about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy? Less than you might think. Although reading the tea leaves during the transition is a popular Washington pastime (and even us folks outside the Beltway can play), it’s next-to-useless as a guide to actual policy decisions. To begin ...

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Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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590813_090104_Ntl_sec_Obama_Walt_1.5_resized2.jpg

What do Barack Obama's foreign policy appointments tell us about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy? Less than you might think. Although reading the tea leaves during the transition is a popular Washington pastime (and even us folks outside the Beltway can play), it's next-to-useless as a guide to actual policy decisions.

To begin with, why did Obama keep a Bush appointee (Robert Gates) at Defense, put former rival Hillary Clinton at State (despite her lack of genuine foreign policy credentials), and appoint a Marine general whose views on U.S. grand strategy are unknown as his Special Assistant for National Security? It is because he shares their policy preferences and intends to base his foreign policy on their global vision?

Hardly. Obama made these appointments to armor-plate his administration against future criticism. He knows that the United States is in deep trouble at home and abroad, and that his first term will involve a lot of tough slogging. The economy will get worse before it gets better, and he has inherited two wars that the United States is probably not going to win in any meaningful sense of that term. Things are likely to go badly once we leave Iraq, and we'll be lucky if we can cut a deal and get out of Afghanistan on his watch as well. If things do deteriorate on either front, the GOP and the neocons would be quick to shout that the "surge" was working, that victory was within sight, and that Obama and the Democrats blew it. Keeping Gates at the Pentagon and putting Jones atop the NSC insulates Obama from this dubious but politically potent line of argument. Similarly, putting Hillary at State reinforces Democratic unity and prevents her from saying that all would be well had the voters chosen her instead.

What do Barack Obama’s foreign policy appointments tell us about the future direction of U.S. foreign policy? Less than you might think. Although reading the tea leaves during the transition is a popular Washington pastime (and even us folks outside the Beltway can play), it’s next-to-useless as a guide to actual policy decisions.

To begin with, why did Obama keep a Bush appointee (Robert Gates) at Defense, put former rival Hillary Clinton at State (despite her lack of genuine foreign policy credentials), and appoint a Marine general whose views on U.S. grand strategy are unknown as his Special Assistant for National Security? It is because he shares their policy preferences and intends to base his foreign policy on their global vision?

Hardly. Obama made these appointments to armor-plate his administration against future criticism. He knows that the United States is in deep trouble at home and abroad, and that his first term will involve a lot of tough slogging. The economy will get worse before it gets better, and he has inherited two wars that the United States is probably not going to win in any meaningful sense of that term. Things are likely to go badly once we leave Iraq, and we’ll be lucky if we can cut a deal and get out of Afghanistan on his watch as well. If things do deteriorate on either front, the GOP and the neocons would be quick to shout that the “surge” was working, that victory was within sight, and that Obama and the Democrats blew it. Keeping Gates at the Pentagon and putting Jones atop the NSC insulates Obama from this dubious but politically potent line of argument. Similarly, putting Hillary at State reinforces Democratic unity and prevents her from saying that all would be well had the voters chosen her instead.

Even if political expediency were not involved, knowing who the players are doesn’t tell you what they will do. Back in 2000, lots of people believed George W. Bush when he promised a “humble” foreign policy, because his early appointees included pragmatic realists like Colin Powell, Richard Haass, Bob Blackwill and Robert Zoellick. Heck, we thought Dick Cheney was pretty sensible too, and so plenty of smart observers expected a reprise of Bush 41. Who knew that Bush and Cheney would succumb to the neoconservatives’ bellicose fantasies, at great cost to our country and to Bush’s own political fortunes and historical reputation?

Progressives now worry that Obama is bringing back the old Clinton team, (minus the top layer). The new administration will be chock-full of people who supported the invasion of Iraq, and who have long been eager to use American power and influence to address a daunting array of global problems. (If you don’t believe me, check out this and this.) The New York Times reports that Obama wants to reduce reliance on military power and rely more on diplomacy, aid, and a revitalized State Department, but this approach still translates into sending an army of Americans out to tell other countries how to conduct their business.

So there are reasons to worry, but what do you expect? If Obama wanted to appoint people with at least some vague idea of how Washington works (and therefore could be expected to perform their jobs competently), who else was he likely to pick? Indeed, who else do the Democrats have?

Moreover, I don’t care what someone believed or advocated in the past; I want to know what they are going to do now. The real questions to ask are whether the former Clintonistas learned anything from their past experiences or from the disasters of the past eight years, and whether they recognize that it ain’t the 1990s anymore. Will Obama’s new Middle East team repeat Clinton’s mishandling of the Oslo process? Will he and his advisors eventually conclude that a nuclear Iran is as “unacceptable” as Bush believed a nuclear Iraq to be, and order another preventive war? (I wish I could rule that out completely, but too many well-funded groups and well-connected individuals are already laying the groundwork). Do they still think the U.S. is the “indispensable nation” — as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did — and will they feel compelled to tackle every international problem? Or will they quickly figure out that a country that is mired in recession, fighting two wars, in urgent need of health care reform and infrastructure investments, and looking at a $1 trillion (!) budget deficit has simply got to set clear priorities, make tough choices, and find ways to get other states to bear more of the burden. I don’t know, but neither does anybody else. Yet.

There are two other reasons why initial appointments don’t tell you that much about eventual directions that policy will take. First, foreign policy is a realm of inevitable surprises: no matter how carefully you set an agenda and how hard you try to stick to it, the outside world always deals you a few wild cards. Just ask President Bush, who didn’t see 9/11 coming and ended up invading two far-away countries about which he knew nothing. Second, the internal dynamics of any Administration are impossible to predict. Once Obama’s team is in place, he will inevitably learn who is good at their jobs and who isn’t, and whose judgment and advice proves useful and whose input he decides to ignore.  

For all these reasons, we actually know a lot less about Obama’s foreign policy than we think we do, and knowing the players doesn’t tell you much about the playbook. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but not taking any bets just yet.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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