Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Who Runs U.S. Foreign Policy and Will it be Barack versus Hillary?

Only about June will the Obama administration start functioning smoothly in foreign policy though, of course, it has already laid out major themes. There is a strong sense of wanting to start over (reset); a desire to conciliate and apologize; to put a priority on engagement with enemies (which are far from being "former enemies" and are not likely to become such).

But you know all that.

There is also an element of continuity and pragmatism which is often missed by those who hate Obama and want to make things worse than they are (things are bad enough without exaggeration!).

To some extent, the more positive features are coming from the State Department. Why is that when the department has long been identified with a lot of bad things?  Part of the answer is that in recent years, the department has sabotaged or opposed presidents who were

--more to the center or center-right, now it is holding back a man who is the most left-wing president in American history.

--wanting to make small but necessary changes (even in a moderate liberal direction). Now it is holding back a president who wants to change far too much.

Having written a book that was a history of the foreign policymaking process--Secrets of State-- which is the only one I know that tries to explain the mysteries of this system, let me say some things about what's going on now.

First, the White House doesn't have the time or staff to run foreign policy. It sets out themes and deals with high-level focal-point issues but the State Department (along with the Defense Department) have to handle international affairs. The institutional counter to that is the National Security Council but that requires a very strong national security advisor who has the president's ear plus a decisive (and it helps if he's knowledgeable) president.

Inevitably, then, 90 percent is going to be the State Department. A president may have a special interest in certain topics which have to be set out and even then he can't deal with the details. Perhaps Obama will be directly engaged over engagement with Iran and the withdrawal from Iraq. I doubt he is going to be at that level on Israel-Palestinian or U.S.-Syria relations, for example, no matter what he says publicly.

Second, there's the little matter of domestic issues and just plain politics that takes up a lot of White House time.

Third, the president tends to focus on one big thing at any given moment: a key bill in Congress, a summit meeting, and so on. Meanwhile, a hundred other things are going on.

One factor that makes people underestimate the role of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the existence of at least three special envoys to the Middle East. But this situation is far less important than it seems.

Dennis Ross is more like a roving ambassador--his role during the Bush administration--who is trying to coordinate with Gulf states on the U.S. policy toward Iran. What should be happening is his functioning as an alliance-building coordinator to put together a strong alignment against Iran. Instead, he is reduced to reassuring Gulf regimes that the United States isn't going to abandon them in order to be Tehran's friend. Ross is very able but it doesn't amount to much.

The same thing applies for George Mitchell on Arab-Israeli, or more properly Israeli-Palestinian, issues. He isn't formulating or implementing anything, just sort of shmoozing and gathering facts. He will have no lasting impact.

Richard Holbrooke is a bit different as he is supposed to be actually negotiating with Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not much appears to be happening and if either one blows up into a crisis the work will be quickly kicked up to a higher level.

The administration has not yet faced any real foreign policy crisis. When it does, actions have to be proposed, disagreements can arise and that is the point where you might see real splits between Obama and Clinton over both jurisdiction and choices..

The other key decision point is when things start going wrong, though that could take longer. What happens when it becomes clear that Cuba doesn't want to become a democracy; North Korea continues to act like a rogue elephant, Russia bashes its neighbors, Iran breaks any promises and speeds toward nuclear arms, and Syria demonstrably sponsors terrorism and bullies Lebanon?

Faced with a crisis or proof that apologies plus engagement doesn't work, will the administration change course or pretend that nothing is happening? That's when I'd expect Obama and Clinton to clash. Hillary doesn't have that much foreign policy experience but she seems to have grasped the concept of true Realism (not the nonsense often peddled nowadays under that label) and has the right personality for what's needed (tough, nasty, grasps facts, wants to get things done) while Obama seems to feel that words equate to deeds and that the world is one big community in need of organizing.

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