Barack Obama’s choices of John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan to head, respectively, the State Department, Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency suggest that foreign policy in the next four years will continue to reflect caution.
Kerry and Hagel are decorated veterans of the Vietnam War and, as in the case of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, they are reluctant to send U.S. forces to fight wars that are not U.S. vital interests. Like Powell, a former army general, Kerry and Hagel oppose open-ended wars that prove costly in U.S. lives and financial drain.
John Brennan’s career resembles that of his predecessor, Robert Gates, also a career CIA official, who became its director after serving several years at the White House as a national security specialist. In addition, Brennan has had major experience in Middle East affairs, adding to his value as an advisor on the serious issues Obama faces there.
If these three appointments are confirmed by the Senate, President Obama will have at his side three experienced officials who share his skepticism about the interventionist foreign policies that were pursued by the last three presidents, especially by George W. Bush, whose hegemonic policies took the country into costly and inconclusive conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
How would Obama’s new national security team deal with major foreign policy challenges in his second term? Here are four to consider:
» Afghanistan after NATO withdrawal. Obama and his team will have to decide soon how rapidly to withdraw the remaining 66,000 troops from Afghanistan and whether to leave a residual force there after the deadline of December 2014. There is pressure from the Pentagon and segments of Congress to retain a U.S. force of at least 5,000 beyond that date. But Obama needs to be persuaded that a small force will help Afghanistan provide for its own defense and build a stable regime.
Will Afghanistan be a stable country after the U.S. and NATO withdraw? Many experts doubt it and urge Obama to retain a small U.S. force. But given the president’s and Hagel’s anti-interventionist views, it is problematic whether Obama will invest additional resources there unless the Afghan government shows far more effectiveness.
» Syria’s civil war and regional security. Despite calls from politicians and some media to adopt a robust policy on Syria and arm the rebels fighting the Assad regime, Obama has so far resisted pressure to intervene. The dangers of intervention are significant, not least because Russia is opposed and may begin supplying its arms to Assad’s military, as it did for more than 40 years.
Yet, the risk of inaction on Syria is that its civil war will spill into neighboring countries, specifically Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, all of which already play host to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting. As in Afghanistan, however, it seems unlikely that the National Security Council team of Kerry, Hagel and Brennan will recommend intervention in a civil war where the risk of escalation would be large and the end result obscure.
» China’s aggressive policies in East Asia. Actions by Beijing in pressing historical claims to large parts of the South China Sea and small islands in Northeast Asia claimed by Japan and South Korea has generated deep concern in Washington. Last year Obama shifted U.S. strategic priorities from Europe to the Western Pacific and announced the buildup of American’s naval presence in Southeast Asia. China recently provoked a near-confrontation with Japan over a Japanese-owned island lying south of Okinawa. Last month Japan’s voters brought to power a new government pledged to oppose China over its belligerent moves and increase Japan’s military budget.
Japan is a close ally, and the United States will defend it if China presses its claims to the point of confrontation. But Obama and Secretary of State Kerry will use the substantial diplomatic tools available to persuade China and Japan to avoid an armed conflict. If these historical enemies do not settle their differences with U.S. help, Obama would be obligated to use U.S. military power in the Pacific to defend Japan.
» Iran and Israel. Iran’s nuclear threat is the most urgent foreign policy issue facing Obama, and crucial decisions will be made this year. Israel holds elections next week, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is slated to form a new majority coalition with Israel’s most hawkish parties. They oppose concessions to the Palestinians and insist on building Jewish settlements across the West Bank. Netanyahu can be expected to launch a massive campaign to persuade Obama that Iran’s nuclear plants must be disabled before it builds a weapon. He threatens to attack Iran without U.S. participation, if necessary.
Obama must decide whether to accept a policy on Iran similar to one George W. Bush adopted in the case of Iraq: take pre-emptive military action. Such a move would be opposed by NATO allies and by major countries around the world. In sum, Obama must soon determine whether U.S. vital national interests justify an attack on Iran before it acquires a nuclear weapon, or whether tougher sanctions and sustained diplomacy should be employed to dissuade Iran from taking that step. Israel may not be pleased by a delay; but in this instance Obama may decide that U.S. interests do not run parallel to those of the Netanyahu government.
Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist, author and lecturer who lives near Charlottesville. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.