Jens F. Laurson and George A. Pieler: Continuity We Can Believe In

By Jens F. Laurson and George Pieler

When Barack Obama announced his Foreign Policy and National Security team, the best news was that journalists like Robert Dreyfuss, Leslie Savan, and Robert Kuttner weren’t impressed. Hoping for leftists in moderate’s clothing, they are now faced with a global affairs team that makes the President-elect look more like a moderate-conservative in liberal’s clothing. Hillary Clinton—judged by her Senate record and campaign positions on foreign policy—certainly appears more hawk than dove, though her all-too-clever triangulation on the Iraq did not serve her candidacy well. Either way, clearly she is someone most Republicans and Joe Lieberman Democrats (is there more than one?) can live with.

Naming James L. Jones, the trusty marine and former supreme allied commander in Europe, as national security advisor spells continuity. On Iraq he has been publicly non-critical of the war itself but pointedly critical of its implementation and forward strategy. If one believes Bob Woodward (a coin-toss these days), Jones always opposed the invasion in private counsel. More importantly, he is a tough customer who won’t be run over like Condoleezza Rice was by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Company in her hapless stint as NSA. And finally keeping George W. Bush’s nonpartisan Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the epitome of “continuity we can believe in.”

Richard Holbrooke (vainglorious but experienced and effective), the perennial Dennis Ross (currently parked at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and Leslie Gelb (already working on post-occupation plans for Iraq) are just around the corner. Even if moderate Republican Senators Dick Luger (who declined), Chuck Hagel, and John McCain don’t join Obama’s team, this is a collection of politicians and political bureaucrats that represent the mainstream of American foreign policy as exemplified in George H. W. Bush’s presidency.

All of this could be good, if interpreted as cautious avoidance of radical departures in policy, but less so if seen as stolidity and a troubling lack of imagination. It is difficult to envision this lot manufacturing an Iran-Contra type debacle, or approaching Reagan-like heights of achievement. Bush 41 managed the transition from Soviet-dominated to post-Soviet New Europe extremely well, despite a few nail-biting moments. Yet his team also gave Saddam Hussein the wink-and-nod that let him think he could invade Kuwait with impunity. The consequences of that error will, apparently, be with us for a long time.

The unknown factor is Obama himself, the self-declared “visionary” who will set the policy for his eminently capable foreign policy team. His campaign pledges (speedy withdrawal from Iraq, reneging on core principles of free trade) are not necessarily mainstream, and their practical implications unclear. Whether Obama’s presidency is molded more after his liberal or moderate image will only be revealed when the hard decisions are made. And anyone who prefers a rational, restrained, yet vigilant foreign policy in defense of American and Western interests should keep their powder dry, as it were.

There is of course an intersection where libertarians, foreign policy conservatives (not to be mistaken for “hawks”), and self-declared liberals meet. The shared conviction that the United States is best advised to not meddle too much abroad, that George Washington’s farewell address (avoiding “overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty,” and leading by example not interference) still has something to contribute to the discourse on the country’s foreign affairs.

That is the ideal the old Bob Taft GOP exemplified, first eclipsed by the Cold War, and now by Islamist extremism. True change does demand continuity, while the challenge for any administration is to find the vision to blend foreign policy temperance with America’s vital role as superpower with military, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic drivers all working in steady rhythm. For tackling such a tremendous task, especially in the post-9/11 world, the Obama team deserves both the best wishes and the intense critical scrutiny this case demands.



Jens F. Laurson is editor-in-chief of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is a senior fellow with the Institute for Policy Innovation.

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