Obama’s and Romney’s foreign policy teams and key appointments

Neither President Barack Obama nor Republican candidate Mitt Romney has said much about foreign policy in the 2012 presidential campaign. What they have said does not rise to the level of serious policy discussion or initiative.  “We got Bin Laden” is not a foreign policy position or initiative. 

Foreign policy is not really an issue, at least not yet, in the campaign.  Most Americans seem to have tuned out the world.  Even momentous events, such as the civil war in Syria, or Iran’s progress on the road to nuclear weapons and the potential Israeli and U.S. responses, seem to be of little interest in most of the country. 

We know very little about who Romney would appoint to be the key members of his foreign policy team. Who would he appoint to be his Secretary of State, or his Secretary of Defense, or to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency?

During the Republican National Convention, on August 29, Romney’s foreign policy was presented on PBS, the public broadcasting channel, by former U.S. senator Norm Coleman and former U.S. congressman Vin Weber, both from Minnesota. Neither had had any serious foreign policy experience outside of Congress. Neither said anything in the PBS interview that suggested a grasp of foreign policy beyond that which might be absorbed from reading briefing papers. The only name of wide recognition among those reported to be advising Romney is that of John R. Bolton, who was well-known for his controversial views during the George W. Bush administration, in which he served as Ambassador to the United Nations during a recess appointement. He has also held other important positions in the State and Justice Departments. 

On the Democratic side, Obama has said very little about what his foreign policy would be in his second term if he is reelected. Presumably, he will try to get some major nuclear arms control agreement with Russia, further limiting the number of weapons, perhaps drastically.  In the absence of other publicized initiatives, once can only assume that his policy would be pretty much like it has been for the last four years. 

Who would Obama name as Secretary of State in a second term? Would NSC Adviser Tom Donilon be sent to Foggy Bottom? Would Leon Panetta be held on as Secreaty of Defense? Would General David Petraeus remain as Director of the CIA?

Donilon is reported to be excellent at managing the mechanics and the inter-agency process at the National Security Council, and obviously has the strong confidence of the President, who has sent him on special missions this year to meet with Vladimir Putin and with Benjamin Netanyahu. He served as a senior aide to Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the first Clinton administration. Both he and Christopher came from the prominent law firm of O’Melveny & Myers.  He and his wife and brother have extremely close relationships with Vice President Joseph Biden and the latter’s wife. But he has no experience actually living and serving overseas, and has been the subject of strong criticisms by other national secuirty officials in the past, including Robert Gates.

Would Leon Panetta be held on as Secreaty of Defense? Given Obama’s proclivity for sticking with existing officials, and even naming key officials from the list of those next in order of succession, he would probably keep Panetta on at Defense.

It is likely that Obama  would keep General David Petraeus at the CIA, but not certain. We know very little about the nature of their interaction since Petraeus became CIA director.

Beyond the above considerations, there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Obama wants to be his own Secretary of State, and to manage foreign policy himself in a very hands-on manner from the White House. The problem with this approach is that the president’s attention is by definition extremely limited, and his decisions may not always be fully informed by the advice of diplomats on the ground in the various countries of the world.  Since decision making is a process, it is also signficant that the President, unlike a cabinet secretary, doesn’t have the ability to informally call one or another key adviser into his office to brainstorm or to get his or her reaction to recent developments.  For this reason, decisions directed from the White House tend to be be less nuanced, and with fewer opportunities for flexibility in their implementation.

Moreover, the President does not appear to be comfortable with those who directly challenge him on important points. His circle of trusted advisers is small.  He doesn’t seem to hear, or to take seriously into account, criticisms of his policies that come from outside his narrow circle of trusted associates.

Obama obviously needs a strong secretary of state who can vigorously represent the nation’s interests as seen from the perspective of state department officials.  

Consequently, his choice of Secretary of State for a second term will be critical, and will tell us much about the direction U.S. foreign policy would take during a second Obama term.  The choice at State, and also at Defense, involves much more than the person who is chosen.  It will also signal whether Obama is open to reconsidering those aspects of his foreign policy to date which have been least successful.

Both Romney and Obama need to start talking about foreign policy in a serious way, beyond bullet points, if they hope to gain any momentum or legitimacy from the elections for its future execution.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.