While a President Barack Hussein Obama will present
a strikingly different face of the United States to the rest of the world, how
different his actual foreign policy will be remains unclear.
On the one hand, Obama has repeatedly stressed the importance of multilateralism
and diplomatic re-engagement with the world, including longtime US adversaries
such as Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, as a contrast to the unilateralist and
militarized approach of the incumbent, President George W. Bush.
On the other hand, most of his advisers are veterans of the administration
of President Bill Clinton whose own brand of liberal interventionism
including the circumvention of the United Nations in the Balkans, Sudan, and
Iraq and reluctance to press Israel to make key concessions in negotiations
with its Arab neighbors and notion that the US was the "indispensable
nation" helped lay the foundation for the eight years that followed.
"There are lots of Clinton re-treads," noted Stephen Clemons, who
heads the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation (NAF). He
pointed to the reported offer to Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former senior Clinton
aide, to serve as Obama's White House Chief of Staff as one of many hints that
a "Clinton-3" administration may be in the offing.
As the biracial son of a Kenyan father, who spent a formative part of his childhood
in Indonesia and the rest in multicultural Hawaii, Obama will clearly present
a far different image of the United States to the rest of the world than his
immediate predecessor, or any other, for that matter. Aside from his background
and physical appearance, his eloquence, equanimity under fire, and intellectual
acuity and curiosity will also mark a striking contrast to Bush.
"The fact that he presents a very different face of America is very important,
because our political capital around the world has been so very badly depleted
over the last eight years," according to Raj Menon, who teaches international
relations at Lehigh University.
But that image, as well the foreign policy commitments he made during the campaign
assuming that he holds to them may not be sufficient to ensure the kind
of sweeping change in course that much of the world and many voters who cast
their ballots for him here expect.
Obama will almost certainly make good within a relatively short time on his
promises to close the Guantanamo detention facility, rejoin global efforts to
curb greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming, and open direct
dialogues with Syria and Iran, that will cheer Democrats and Washington's European
But, despite Democratic gains in Congress, he may be less inclined to expend
political capital on more controversial issues that will require substantial
bipartisan support, such as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
or the Rome Protocol for the International Criminal Court and amending the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to strengthen labor rights and environmental
With the US economy engulfed in the worst financial crisis since the Great
Depression, Obama is not likely to have nearly as much time to focus on foreign
policy than he had thought even two months ago. The fact that an overwhelming
majority of Tuesday's voters rated economic issues as more important to them
than the Iraq War or terrorism make it more likely that the new president will
delegate more foreign policy decisions to his vice president, Senate Foreign
Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden, and subordinates who have yet to
The most likely subordinates span a wide range of opinion from crusading
liberal interventionists, whose Manichean views of the world as a battleground
of good versus evil are not so far removed from those of the more-tribalistic
neoconservatives around Bush, to "realists," many of whom, like former
Secretary of State Colin Powell, have historically identified more with the
Republican Party and are generally more leery of military intervention and "nation-building"
enterprises, particularly in the absence of strong multilateral support.
Where Obama himself stands within that spectrum remains unclear to most observers,
in part because foreign policy virtually disappeared from the presidential campaign
after the financial crisis broke in mid-September.
The operating assumption is that he stands somewhere in between. While consistent
with the interventionists like Biden, he has endorsed the imposition of no-fly
zones, unilaterally if necessary, over Darfur in Sudan to stop what they call
the "genocide" there, and his emphasis on engaging enemies diplomatically,
regardless of their human-rights record, reflects a more realist tendency. In
fact, he may well try to achieve a balance between the two poles in his appointments.
Thus, it is believed that his first choice to head the Pentagon is the Republican
incumbent, Robert Gates, who, along with Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice,
is given much of the credit for steering US policy on a less unilateralist
and hawkish course since he joined the administration two years ago.
Despite Gates's public opposition to several positions taken by Obama during
the election campaign, including the president-elect's intention to withdraw
all US combat forces from Iraq over a fixed 16-month timetable and bar the
development of new kinds of nuclear weapons, he is still seen as desirable,
both for his competence and experience and as a way to redeem Obama's promise
of an inclusive administration.
And if he decides against Gates or if Gates declines the offer
Obama may very well choose another Republican realist as secretary of state,
while opting for Clinton's former Navy Secretary, Richard Danzig, for defense
secretary. Three have been mentioned so far the ranking member of Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar; outgoing Nebraska Sen.
Chuck Hagel; and the former head of the US European Command, Gen. James L. Jones,
who backed Sen. John McCain for president.
All three are solid realists who, significantly, are considered likely to be
more evenhanded in addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and less inclined toward
confrontation with Iran than either the current administration or many liberal
If, on the other hand, Gates remains Pentagon chief, Obama is likely to pick
a Democrat for secretary of state. Aside from the three Republicans, the names
most frequently mentioned, according to Clemons, are the 2004 Democratic presidential
candidate, Sen. John Kerry, who leans more to the liberal side of the spectrum,
and Clinton's former UN ambassador, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, whose eagerness
to engage US foes puts him more in the realist camp. Another former Clinton
UN Amb. Richard Holbrooke, a liberal interventionist par excellence, is also
said to be in the running but has reportedly fallen from favor in recent weeks.
James Steinberg, who served as Clinton's former deputy national security adviser
and reportedly leans more to the interventionist side of the spectrum, is said
to be the front-runner for Obama's national security adviser, while Clinton's
former attorney and Democratic realist, Gregg Craig, is likely to be considered
for deputy secretary of state.
Clinton's former top Africa aide and liberal interventionist, Susan Rice, is
reportedly in the running for deputy national security adviser and UN ambassador,
while three of Obama's closest foreign policy advisers who have not worked for
Clinton, Dennis McDonough, Gen. Scott Gration, and speechwriter Ben Rhodes,
a realist who co-authored the Baker-Hamilton report on US policy in Iraq and
the Middle East two years ago, are likely to get White House posts.
(Inter Press Service)