Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

The following piece is also appearing in the Bengali daily published by the Times of India in Kolkata, India

U.S. President Barack Obama had practically nothing to say about foreign policy in his second inaugural address, but the figures he has chosen for his new national security team tell us almost all we need to know.  There will be no internal squabbling over foreign affairs, there will be an emphasis on diplomacy and there will be continuity. 

Above all, it is highly likely that disproportionate attention will be paid to foreign policy.  One indication?  The new White House Chief of Staff won’t be a domestic policy specialist.  He will be Denis R. McDonough, who has been deputy national security advisor this past few years.  Already a member of Obama’s inner circle of trusted counselors, McDonough shared in planning for the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.  He was also instrumental in shaping Obama’s decision to ignore military preferences by accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  In short, the era of high and mighty generals is over.   Not only McDonough, but the new secretaries of State and Defense will see to that.

Recall how Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus attempted to undermine the authority of the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama, which is to say, how they challenged civilian control of the military?  McChrystal allowed his contempt to be expressed in print, and Petraeus lobbied publicly to undermine the President’s determination not to expand the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.  And what happened to these supposedly PR-savvy generals?  McChrystal was invited to resign.  Petraeus, soon to be compromised by personal arrogance as well as stalemate in Afghanistan, was kicked upstairs to CIA director—no uniform, no chestful of medals, and no imperial general staff.

Obama’s new Secretary of Defense will be no more easily cowed by top military brass than his boss. He will also be invulnerable to criticism from the hawkish right.  Chuck Hagel, a heartlander and Republican maverick, served as a much-decorated enlisted man during the Viet Nam war.  It’s widely expected that Hegel, after a brief but obligatory grilling by his old colleagues in the Senate, will be confirmed, as will ex-senator John Kerry, who’s been nominated  to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

And so, surge over, troop reductions accelerating, soon there will be a mere remnant of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, whose government will have to provide its own defense using an army whose professionalism—i.e., loyalty to a secular national government in Kabul—cannot be guaranteed, despite sustained training efforts by US and NATO troops.  Moreover, should the Taliban come to power in a year or so, the Obama administration will not intervene—at least, not unless or until a credible threat of cross-border  terrorism al Qaeda style results.  In that case, the response will be swift.  Thanks to pilotless drones, the world offers few safe havens to violent extremists.  Whether or not Pakistan’s military was harboring Osama bin Laden, the brain behind the 9/11 attacks was found and killed.  Also consider the assassination by drone of Al Awlaki,  the American-born Islamist propagandist long headquartered in Yemen.

The prospect of Obama’s de-emphasizing Afghan democratization and social reform efforts deeply disappoints those who advocate for human rights and women’s rights, but it has long been clear that Barack Obama understands that governments may be responsive to their people and mete out justice without being U.S. clones.  His willingness to deal with an Egyptian president drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood is a case in point, although it invites criticism of Obama from the political Right.  Meanwhile, the selection of John Brennan for Director of the CIA should comfort hawks who worry that Obama is too soft.  Although the President has declared that the U.S. does not torture people, Brennan has never unequivocally dissociated the Agency from what have euphemistically been called harsh interrogation methods.

Nevertheless, a second Obama administration will continue to prioritize a foreign policy based on diplomacy, as evidenced by John Kerry’s eagerness to be Secretary of State. Like Hagel, the   Senator from Massachusetts is a decorated Viet Nam veteran who won’t easily be pushed around by neo-con hawks who prefer swagger and bombast to solid negotiations.  What’s more, since Kerry’s run for the presidency in 2000 was torpedoed by Right Wing-funded lies about his thoroughly honorable military service, he’s unlikely to bend before those who confuse patriotism with trigger-happiness.

With this foreign policy team in place, it can be expected that Obama will continue to be a realist with a pragmatic approach to foreign policy.  No single formula will be applied to all countries in the throes of revolutionary change.  What’s more, with one exception,  the U.S. will not attempt to dictate the form of Islam that may prevail.  That’s aggressive, expansive, violent extremism.  We see already that the administration is following the Libya model in an extremist-threatened Mali, supplying equipment and intelligence to reinforce French forces and African units.

Which brings us to Iran, where policy continuity can also be expected.  Sanctions seem to be working, and Obama will continue to resist Israeli PM Netanyahu’s demands for preemptive strikes on Iran’s uranium  enrichment installations.  Obama will also refuse to draw “red lines” of the sort that could automatically trigger drastic military reactions.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration will probably continue to authorize stealthy cyberattacks to slow down Iran’s progress toward possession of nuclear weapons.  Finally, while granting Iran’s right to peaceful uses of nuclear power, the Obama administration will insist on regular, credible UN inspections of nuclear facilities.

There’s a very good political reason for Barack Obama to have been gearing up to favor foreign policy initiatives during his second administration, although he will undoubtedly also push for immigration reform, gun control legislation and a domestic economic policy favoring revenue enhancement over cutting services. Republicans and Democrats are currently locked in a bitter ideological debate that all too often leads to legislative stalemate on domestic issues.  In the foreign policy arena, a chief executive has much more freedom of movement, and this idealistic, yet hard-headed Chief Executive is positioning himself to act decisively on global issues.