During the primary season, candidate Barack Obama spoke eloquently about the need to end not just a war that “should’ve never been authorized and should’ve never been waged” but also the “mindset that got us into war” in the first place. Yet as president-elect, he has assembled a national security team whose top members–Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and James Jones–either voted to authorize the war or have been waging it. Maybe being right about the greatest foreign policy disaster in US history doesn’t mean that much inside the Beltway? Obama has said he welcomes “vigorous debate” and “dissenting views” from his so-called “team of rivals,” but with no oppositional–or even unconventional–voice on foreign policy, how will this group of establishment figures bring about the promised transformation of mindset?
On the matter of Iraq, debate and dissent will likely have to come from Obama himself. On December 1, he reaffirmed his plan to withdraw troops within sixteen months, and there is no reason to expect that he’ll renege on his signature pledge to “give the military a new mission: ending this war” on the first day of his presidency. But Obama’s Iraq plan–sound in principle–has always been heavily qualified with caveats about reassessment based on recommendations from advisers and the military. One of those advisers, Gates, as George W. Bush’s defense secretary (an office he will continue to hold), vocally opposed Obama’s withdrawal plan. Another, former Marine commander Jones, Obama’s choice for national security adviser, has declared a timeline for withdrawal to be “against our national interest.” As president, will Obama set the policy and stick to the vision laid out in his campaign? Or will recommendations from Gates, Jones and other military leaders sway the course?
On other foreign policy issues, Obama is generally in alignment with his national security team. Neither he nor his advisers advocate the Bush doctrine of unilateral military action and preventive war, and all seem inclined to restore diplomacy and multilateral engagement as tools of US foreign policy. Even Gates has urged diplomacy with Iran, decried the “gutting” of America’s “soft power” and warned of the “creeping militarization” of foreign policy. Obama’s appointment of key adviser Susan Rice as UN ambassador and his restoration of that post to the cabinet are dramatic breaks from Bush’s contempt for international institutions. And although Hillary Clinton’s hawkish record and vote for the Iraq War are of concern, her nomination is an opportunity for the State Department to reassert itself and diminish the alarmingly large foreign policy role Bush assigned the Defense Department. These gestures toward diplomacy and engagement will be greatly amplified if President Obama and his advisers move swiftly and decisively, as they have signaled they will, to sign global treaties on climate change, women’s and children’s rights and nuclear weapons reduction, and abolish torture and shut down Guantánamo.
In other respects, the emerging national security consensus of the incoming Obama administration reflects troubling positions Obama has taken in the past. Like Obama, Gates and Jones advocate increasing the US military presence in Afghanistan. As a draft of a National Intelligence Estimate concluded that America was caught in a “downward spiral” in Afghanistan, Gates said that there is “no reason to be defeatist.” But extracting the United States from one disastrous occupation to head into another will drain resources needed to fulfill Obama’s plans for economic recovery, healthcare and energy independence, and will crowd out other international initiatives.
It is also highly unlikely that Obama’s plans to increase the size of the military and expand NATO will be subject to “vigorous debate” within his cabinet. Of course, Obama still has an opportunity to change the mindset that got us into Iraq and more. He has a popular mandate to end failed policies and craft a smarter security policy for these times. But he’s sure making his work toughter with the team he’s assembled. In many areas, fresh thinking will have to come from outside his administration–and outside Washington.