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18 March 2018 11:53 (South Africa)

Obama's second term security team starts to gel

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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C:\fakepath\brooks on obama security cluster

After a few unexpected speed bumps and wobbles, as Barack Obama gets ready to take the inaugural oath for the second and final time, his international relations and security team – Mark II – is coming into focus. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Cabinet replacements are the norm in American presidential tenures – it is an increasingly rare official who stays on through two full presidential terms, if a president manages to be re-elected. More usually, a president makes a carefully distributed selection (from among political allies, acknowledged professional expertise, agreement with the president’s policy druthers, and geographical/ethnic/professional and gender balance) for his first cabinet. Then there is a natural attrition during those first four years as replacement appointments must be made.

By the time a president’s second term rolls around, he finds it politically expedient to begin a gradual reshuffle, especially as long-time cabinet officers, themselves, choose to move on to other spheres of activity. Yes, the jobs are important and exciting, but they wear out even the most energetic, effective appointee. Many cabinet secretaries gradually tire of all the work and travel, once they realise how hard it can be to effect significant, real policy and programmatic changes – and besides, the money’s not that great anyway. An experienced former cabinet member will usually do rather better in some other position, once that experience is on the resume.

For many appointees, the temptations and excitement of the business world, a longed-for return to academia or the think-tank universe, a chance to run for office themselves – and sometimes even retirement – all begin to look increasingly attractive after several years of service as a cabinet secretary. In the US, unlike in a parliamentary democratic system, cabinet officials do not hold elective office in Congress, and so appointing someone currently in Congress as a cabinet secretary often has elements of a delicate political dance and balancing act associated with it – sending ripples through the party.

And so now that Barack Obama has gained the White House for a second term, “newer” faces will begin to replace several of his most senior appointees. In this process, these appointees may embody particular policy directions in a way more sharply drawn than usual for the US.

First up is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chair. Clinton had initially been a surprise appointment back in 2009, especially after that hard-fought, sometimes bitter competition for the Democratic presidential nomination that she nearly – but ultimately didn’t quite – snag. Signing on to the Obama administration, she rapidly built up a solid base of support, travelling incessantly on behalf of the former rival, as well as carving out several signature policy initiatives like women’s rights as a key element of the broader foreign policy human rights agenda.

Her glide path out of Foggy Bottom (the Washington neighbourhood where the State Department headquarters is located) and onto a potential future as a presidential nominee in 2016 seemed almost absurdly unruffled until mid-September when an American ambassador and three staffers were killed in Benghazi by militants, in a week when there were violent protests in other countries over an anti-Islamic amateur film on the Internet. Administration confusion over what had happened in Benghazi, how it had happened and how they could have responded to it timeously left the administration stumbling to catch up to the news cycle, let alone explain cogently what had happened both in Benghazi and in Washington.

The tangle eventually meant that Clinton’s putative replacement, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, an official with longstanding ties to Barack Obama as a foreign policy advisor, went on five Sunday TV news talk shows days after the killings and then self-imploded. That day effectively destroyed her chances to become the next secretary of state. Throughout that day, she fell back on bad (or, at best, thoroughly incomplete) intelligence guidance, and obdurately stayed in right there with her comments, despite a growing chorus of criticism about what she was saying.

By the end – even before being formally nominated – she took herself out of consideration even before a Senate cat-fight, but the bad taste remains. Republican senators have told Hillary Clinton that she will have to testify on Benghazi events to the appropriate senatorial committees, before they will allow consideration of her successor for the constitutionally required senatorial advice and consent. (She was originally scheduled to testify several weeks ago but fell, had a concussion and then a dangerous blood clot, which kept her out of the office for a month.)

She’ll still get the ceremonial dinners and the applause, but there will remain that bad Benghazi taste as her now-nominated successor, Senator John Kerry, takes over – and he will. Kerry is the long-serving Massachusetts Democratic senator who has clearly been dreaming for decades – perhaps all his life – for the day when he would become secretary of state. Born into a Foreign Service family, a decorated Navy man in Vietnam, then a rising politician and senator, Kerry looks more like a secretary of state than anyone has a right to do and he certainly has sufficient friends in the Senate to be confirmed.

But for political activists, the big question is how Massachusetts Democrats (the governor gets to make the interim appointment) can effectively protect this seat – first in appointing the right person to serve on an interim basis, and then by making sure their best vote getter can retain the seat for the party when it comes up in the next election – less than a year away. This problem arises because Elizabeth Warren turfed Republican Scott Brown out of his seat in the just-past election. Nevertheless, Brown still remains popular and could well be positioned to grab this former Kerry seat – depending on how things shake out among Democratic Party polls.

This becomes a larger issue because the Democratic margin of control of the Senate is in a 55-45 split, with two independents caucusing with the Democrats for organisational purposes. (Because American political parties rarely, if ever, vote on straight party lines, party-line votes for organising the Senate become the key element of control of that deliberative body.)

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta has also decided to retire and return on a more permanent basis to his California walnut farm. Panetta is a Washington veteran who was a long-time congressman, presidential advisor, budget head and CIA director, but he has clearly determined that it is time to go, now that the Obama administration has put Iraq behind it in terms of the US military, and Afghanistan is scheduled to go the same way, soon enough. Time to get out of Dodge and tend those orchards is what’s on Panetta’s mind.

After some public posturing, hemming and hawing, Barack Obama finally decided to go with Chuck Hagel, a maverick former Republican senator from Nebraska. Hagel and Obama have known each other for years from their time in the Senate together and they seem to share a common set of ideas about the US defence posture – going forward.

Even before he was officially nominated this week, Hagel was already subjected to furious assault by a curious coalition of opponents – an anti-gay remark from the 1990s when he opposed Bill Clinton’s nomination of the first openly gay ambassador drew gay activists to criticise him bluntly, until he publicly apologised for that earlier remark. His opposition to tighter sanctions against Iran has attracted some fierce neo-conservative anger, and his refusal to sign any of those garden variety “we support Israel” letters that sometimes circulate in the Senate and his chance remarks about “a Jewish lobby” (rather than an Israeli one) that lines up support for Israeli defence needs has also put him in the crosshairs of the neo-cons – plus the Israel lobby – all over again. A figure like influential neo-con columnist-editor William Kristol (the same man who helped bring the virtually unknown Alaskan governor Sarah Palin to national Republican attention, by the way) has been leading the charge against a cartoonish version of Chuck Hagel as an sworn enemy of Israel and a deluded supporter of Iran.

Hagel’s nomination has even drawn the ire of some women’s groups, who have noted that with this nomination, the Obama cabinet’s international security circle will be entirely white and male – after decades of having a female secretary of state or a black man in that position. In the end, moreover, Obama chose not to select Michelle Flournoy for the position. Flournoy is a defense analyst who had previously held the highest position ever for a woman at the Pentagon – that of Undersecretary for Policy.

But Hagel supporters have now begun a counter-attack, first circling the wagons, then drumming up support and finally, getting some real momentum behind the president’s choice. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for example, asked in a recent column if Hagel was an anti-Semite and answered his own query with a terse reply that said it was a humbug charge and errant nonsense.

Meanwhile the moderate Republican-leaning David Brooks, in his column in the New York Times over the weekend, offered insights into the real “whys” behind Obama’s choice of Hagel. Brooks explained that Hagel’s position as a Republican can help the administration in dealing with what will be the inevitable budget-cutting in defence spending, partly because of the end of action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because of the implacable upward spending on Medicare, even if stringent cost-cutting measures are actually imposed on Medicare – the retirement of the baby boom generation will see to that. 

Moreover, because he and Obama share so much of a Weltanschauung about the role, posture and impact of the US in a post-Iraq/Afghanistan world, because of Hagel’s experience as an actual “grunt”, on the ground, in the Vietnam War, and due to his Republican street cred (despite those aforementioned deviationist tendencies); all of these make him the ideal candidate to drive the inevitable budget cutting that is to come. Furthermore, given Hagel’s clearly less than automatic knee-jerk support for right-wing Israeli policies, he may actually be well placed to help Obama put some pressure on the next Netanyahu government – the one that will almost certainly come into office after January’s election there.

Meanwhile, while Obama had obviously thought at least one part of his international security architecture – CIA director – was firmly in place, the sudden resignation by David Petraeus following the embarrassing public disclosure of his adultery with his biographer/acolyte put a spoke in this particular wheel. In the end, Obama chose to promote long-time intelligence bureaucrat John Brennan, now Obama’s chief counter-terrorism advisor and officially the Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counter-terrorism, for the post. 

Brennan had been an Obama advisor in the 2008 campaign, and back then he had taken himself out of the running for director of the CIA due to concerns over his apparent support for “extreme interrogation measures” by the CIA during the Bush II presidency. While there will be some concerns in the Senate that Brennan has been too supportive of a CIA that has moved too far towards counter-terrorism – and away from its traditional responsibilities in intelligence gathering and analysis – veteran observers feel confident that he, too, will be confirmed.

Given his new “pale man” triumvirate in international security, observers will be looking for some balancing Obama appointments when the treasury post and several other cabinet chairs, as well as other senior White House advisor positions come up for filling in the months ahead. Regardless, in foreign policy at least, all of Obama’s appointments will be designed to ensure his own views are the ones that set the country’s international course.

Some presidents leave much in foreign policy to their advisors and appointees – but Barack Obama is very much the man who is setting his administration’s foreign course, and who sees himself as the place where his administration’s ideas get their first voice. With a second term legacy to establish, this trend will only become stronger. However, anyone looking for an understanding of what Obama wants to see happen internationally could do much worse than review the relevant foreign affairs chapters of his book, The Audacity of Hope, his speeches in Cairo and Accra – or his upcoming inaugural address and State of the Union speech later on this month – to get that firm fix on Obama’s hopes and dreams for the world. DM

P.S. Actually, Obama will take the oath of office four times by the time it is all finished – he took the oath of office twice the first time after he and the chief justice managed to bobble it back in 2009, and he’ll do a double this time too because Inauguration Day comes on Sunday this year and so there will be an small ceremony on the 20th of January, and then at the big public splash the following day.

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) announces his nominees for new U.S. Secretary of Defense former Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel (L) and new CIA director White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (R) at the White House in Washington January 7, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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