Considering Obama's second term foreign policy team

With 'four more years' now more than just a buzz term, who will feature in Obama's increasingly important foreign policy team?

Will Susan Rice get the nod?
Dr. James Boys
On 14 November 2012 12:54

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term.

If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this tactic to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s overseas endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shakeup in personnel, and this is to be expected. The unexpected departure of General Petraeus, however, presents the President with an un-necessary headache, as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon.

The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team, and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, a second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings.

The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is the White House’s favorite to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Suggestions are, however, that she may have been tainted by events in Benghazi. Interestingly, were Rice to be appointed, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white, male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Were this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; the NSC is a possibility. Of course, Kerry could be appointed Defense Secretary. And, of course, if Kerry were to move to the Pentagon, it would open up a Senate seat in Massachusetts

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed Republican William Cohen to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to choose from. Were he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

If Obama decides to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity.

For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

That said, whoever gets the nod to these top positions in Obama’s second term, with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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