Policy not Politics

Policy not Politics

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The shuffle of the Obama foreign policy/national security team which appears to have been completed yesterday makes a number of important statements about the foreign policy direction that the President would like to go during his second term. The difficulty for the President, however, is that in all likelihood he will be caught up for a time in extensive political battles over Samantha Power’s appointment to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.—as he is already with numerous other Cabinet and judicial appointments awaiting Senate confirmation. All of this will result in Washington politics—for a time—distracting from the conduct of U.S. international relations.

On a substantive level, as has been suggested by most analysts, this new Obama national security team in many ways is a true reflection of where the President’s head is with respect to foreign policy. The problem here is that after 4 ½ years in the White House the President has learned that you cannot lead the nation with your head or with heart either (see gun control for example). U.S. foreign policy needs a far more realist approach than many of the more idealistic members of his team desire. 

Rice has comported herself remarkably well at the U.N. and been recognized as representing U.S. interests in a most forthright and articulate manner. If Republicans want to drag around the Benghazi albatross for the balance of the Obama Administration that will be their decision; but Rice herself—even at the time as has been repeatedly demonstrated—was only the Administration’s mouthpiece. She did not create the policies or the infamous talking points.

Presumably, in managing the Embassy in Turtle Bay as well as in her interactions with the White House and the State Department, Rice gained both administrative as well as high-level bureaucratic maneuvering experience. Her role as NSC Adviser not only will test her skills as the critical national security analyst, but also her ability to deal with all the competing foreign policy players (and their personalities) seeking to influence the President. 

Powers has a strong human rights background as well as excellence in journalism and law. She was a respected Harvard colleague and worked very closely during the early part of Obama’s campaign, rejoined him during the transition, and served in the White House for most of the last four years. One has a sense that she is woman of very deep convictions which may get her into trouble when, what appears to be an Irish temper, conflicts with her beliefs. Her personality, led to her ill-tempered words uttered about Hillary Clinton forcing her to resign from the 2008 Obama campaign team, as well to her poorly conceived remarks that she made about Israel in a 2002 interview. 

Practically how this new team will play in prime may well sound something like this:

No one needs to urge the President to be more enthusiastic in his commitment to stop the human bloodbath in Syria. Yet, someone still needs to show him a strategy which will save lives, reduce the fighting, eliminate the terrorist state potential which could replace Assad, avoid the shedding of U.S. blood, not further endanger Israel, not encourage Iranian mischief, and prevent increased radicalization of the region.

Today, the President understands that all the humanitarian considerations which Powers and Rice as well as others in his Administration will bring to the discussion cannot be converted into policy, unless or until, the U.S. and its allies are prepared to commit U.S. forces to the conflict. The team now in place will push him in that direction, but the second term President now has the experience—together with some powerful voices among the Joint Chiefs—to insure that the policy decisions that the U.S. makes are articulated from a total picture.

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