For his first term, President Barack Obama selected Significant Outsiders for his key foreign policy and national security posts. In his second term, he depends heavily on known commodities and loyalists. He promotes from within and keeps the State Department on a short leash. As his original appointees leave, their successors have less clout. Some senior positions in his inner circle have turned over three times in six years.
The Secretary of State has his hands full fire-fighting and trying to alter the ugly trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. It’s not apparent what portfolios the national security adviser has decided to make her own. The Pentagon’s resources are contracting, and the Secretary of Defense cannot successfully downplay this fact when he travels abroad. The President’s advisers are hard-pressed to provide him cover in dealing with political foes, skeptical friends or foreign challengers. With some fires burning and others smoldering, senior officials find it hard to engage in preventive diplomacy except in the most immediate cases.
The White House is therefore susceptible to new crises and will be short-handed to deal with them if and when they arise. Since bad news in foreign affairs usually comes in bunches, this is a particularly vulnerable period for the Obama Administration.
The world is better off with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is also more unruly. The United States spent its unipolar moment waging trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will take time to replenish the political capital lost in these campaigns.
The champions of these wars keep scolding the Obama Administration for not being tough-minded enough when someone steps out of line. Their reflexive prescriptions for toughness are a form of political amnesia as well as point-scoring. Obama Administration officials would also like to selectively forget recent history. The high-mindedness of their candidate’s 2008 foreign policy platform has been mocked and misshapen by brutality abroad. Think of how it feels to be Samantha Power, who chronicled the genocide in Rwanda and then spent time in Barack Obama’s Senate office. She now witnesses the Syrian Problem from Hell as US Ambassador to the United Nations. This harsh world mocks idealism and tough-mindedness in equal measure.
When presidents face difficult times, as all presidents do, they have two choices. One is to rely on confidantes and circle the wagons. The other is to bring in advisers who are not part of the President’s inner circle, but who have the standing and experience to help mend fences and deal effectively with crises. FDR reached out to two internationally minded Republicans, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, as war clouds darkened over Europe and the Pacific. On a far less consequential but still meaningful scale, Ronald Reagan brought Howard Baker into the White House after the Iran/Contra debacle.
President Obama’s impulse has been to circle the wagons. This instinct is understandable, especially when reaching across the aisle has usually resulted in getting his fingers burned. When this president finds himself in trouble, he turns to former high-ranking staffers rather than Significant Outsiders.
Here is a sobering thought: If President Obama now sought to recruit heavyweights to build bridges, fight fires and defuse crises, whom would he call?
This problem transcends the Obama Administration. Another sobering thought: Who would a future Republican president rely upon to handle key foreign policy and national security assignments?