Isolationism, with drones: Obama’s second-term foreign policy

Developing story

The smartest man in the room is so intellectually insecure that he doesn’t like to be questioned, and insists that everyone recognize that he is the smartest man in the room, any room.

So, the new foreign policy team the President has chosen are men who are not likely to confront the president with ideas, policies, or proposals that contradict his own.

Joe Biden remains as Vice President, and the resident  foreign policy expert in the White House to whom Obama can turn for advice outside the normal channels.

Tom Donilon keeps his job as National Security Adviser. Donilon is extremely close to Biden.

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) as Secretary of State will be forever grateful that he was chosen for this position. The only question is whether his enthusiasm for Obama’s foreign policy could weaken if the president doesn’t follow his advice, or accord him due respect.  Will he be allowed into “the inner circle”, or will he remain an “outsider”?  Will the generational differences lead to dismissive behavior by the younger “Obamians” whose hubris reflects and is second only to that of the president?  Will they treat Kerry like they did Richard Holbrooke?   Will he be at the center of decision making, or reduced by the end of his term to circling the globe, visiting exotic foreign countries, like Hillary Clinton?

If, on the other hand, Obama really listens to and works with Kerry as a trusted partner, in fact and on an everyday basis, Kerry could surprise us and become an outstanding Secretary of State. He was the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, after all. He has been the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committe for many years. He even speaks French, which won’t help him with the “know nothings” in the Republican party, but which could be a considerable asset on the diplomatic circuit.

Former Senator Chuck Hagel is something of a cypher.  As Secretary of Defense, he should go along with defense cuts, and probably not make any suggestions that sharply contradict the President’s thinking. He can be expected to share Obama’s caution on getting militarily involved in places like Syria, for example.  The big question is how he will get along with the military, both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the uniformed officers at the Pentagon, during a time of cuts and potentially wrenching developments in Afghanistan, where many have served believing in America’s mission there. His former service in combat should serve him well.

He will be put to the test as events unfold.  How might he respond to a collapse of the government in Afghanistan, if one occurs, or naval incidents between China and Japan near islands in dispute? How will he react as the catastrophe in Syria continues to unfold?

He has an independent streak. As with Kerry, much will depend on his developing relationship with Obama, and their day-to-day interaction.

As for John Brennan, Obama’s choice to head the CIA, one can appreciate the benefit to the country of his leaving the White House, where he and Obama have been executing the targeted killing strategy with drone attacks and special forces operations. On the other hand, his past at the CIA should be carefully scrutinized for complicity in torture, as well as in extraordinary renditions.

Moreover, his actions in managing the “kill lists” and targeted killing programs run out of or orchestrated by the White House should be thoroughly and formally investigated by the Senate before he is confirmed. These programs often operate well outside the limits of international law. We have only journalists’ accounts, usually based on anonymous sources, to give us any idea of what is going on.

The American people, in the American democracy which is supposed to be governed by the rule of law, deserve to know more–from official sources–about what actions are being carried out in their name. Other nations also have a strong interest in knowing what actions are being carried out, and the legal justifications under international law that are being advanced to support their legitimacy.

Is it better to get Brennan out of the White House, and pulling Obama out of some meeting or dinner to go off and execute a targeted killing by drone  operation, or to get someone to lead the CIA who is both capable of leading the changes that are necessary—get out of tactical warfare, and restore human and analytical intelligence capabilities that have atrophied, on the one hand, and untarnished by allleged involvement in torture, extraordinary renditions, or drone operations violating international law, on  the other?

To be sure, there is  a presumption of innocence regarding the above, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a new CIA director untainted by the past, and with fresh views undistorted by 25 years of experience at the Agency?

If Brennan is confirmed, his extremely close relationship with the president will give him great influence, both in the White House and within the CIA.  But it is hard to believe that, with his background, he could get the agency out of the drone business, or rebuild its primary human and analytical capabilities.

In the end, Obama will be running his foreign policy directly, with no one on his team who is likely to be able or willing to question his judgment. Much will depend on the degree to which Obama empowers Kerry and Hagel to challenge him.  Anything is possible, but on the record this does not appear likely.

In view of the above, the new team is not likely to exercise  independent initiative, but rather to simply promote Obama’s positions on foreign policy, which will most probably be a continuation of what we’ve seen in the last four years minus the “surge” in Afghanistan.

Look actively for symptoms of “groupthink” in the new team’s policies and actions.

Look for an extreme reluctance to use traditional military force, “regardless of the consequences”.

Instead, watch for continued and increased  use of “targeted killings” by drone attacks and special forces operations, without regard for the sovereignty of the target state involved, or the legality of such operations under international law.

Don’t expect any grand strategy to emanate from the White House, whether on global warming, nuclear proliferation, or approaches to new governments in the Arab world.

Don’t expect any significant new initiatives with respect to the promotion of human rights, the strengthening of civil society, or actions to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Africa, Latin America, the  countries of the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere.

Don’t look for the president to develop a sudden interest in observing and strengthening international law and institutions.

Don’t look for Obama to secure the adoption of any significant multilateral treaties.  His reputed dream of a major nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, even if agreed, is not likely to be ratified by the Senate. In December, he was unable to achieve even ratification of a U.N. treaty protecting the rights of disabled individuals.

It is kind of tragic to have a president who, though he was president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, doesn’t understand or have a healthy respect for internationl law and institutions.

So don’t expect President Obama to push for ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights (to which members of the Organization of American States are parties), or the Statute of the International Criminal Court, or the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Of course, we may expect to hear lofty speeches from time to  time, as we did in the last four years. But look for the actions that support the noble ideas expressed in the speeches, such as the actual levels of foreign assistance funding dedicated to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law in different countries.

Obama’s foreign policy in the next four years could turn out to be as disastrous and ineffective as U.S. policy toward Syria has been in the last two years.  Obama will continue to drive from the back seat, guided by highly abstract conceptions regarding foreign policy issues.  Specific decisions will be taken on the basis of ad hoc considerations, couched in abstract ideas regarding matters on the ground as seen from 30,000 feet.

Policy will not change in response to public criticism and suggestions, though it could occasionally be modified in response to stiff resistance from other states.

Now that the 2012 election is behind him, Obama doesn’t need to accede to military pressures in places like Afghanistan, as he did with the “surge” in 2009-2010.

The road is clear for him to pursue a withdrawal from the world in economic and military terms.

He is essentially a “domestic” president, with little real interest or passion for world affairs. This will be reflected in his foreign policy, at least until a deadlock blocking further domestic action leads him to look for foreign policy achievements in the latter part of his second term.  These will not be easy to obtain, as the groundwork will not have been laid in the first six years.

In conclusion, Obama’s foreign policy for the next four years is likely to be one that can be summed up as,

“Isolationism, with drones.”

The Trenchant Observer