US Foreign Policy after the Elections: Pragmatism, But in What Direction?

By December 23, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 52

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Obama’s appointments in the foreign policy field suggest pragmatism and caution, not dogmatism and adventure. Therefore, the question regarding the Obama Administration’s foreign policy is not about competence but of direction. Will the pragmatics lead him or will he lead them? The record of the so-called pragmatics is less than stellar; had it been up to them, Saddam would still be in Kuwait, Germany might still be divided, and most recently, the Iraq surge would not have occurred. This paper reviews the international challenges for the Obama team in dealing with the economy, the war on terrorism, and Russia.

This Perspectives Paper is based on a presentation given at the annual Wollinsky Symposium on “Global Challenges 2009″ at Bar-Ilan University, co-sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, FAES, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute of Philadelphia, on December 2, 2008.

The American way in foreign policy depends heavily on the President. Does he know what he wants to do? Does he have a team capable of doing it? The answers to these questions define the character of an administration’s actions abroad.

Thus far, President-elect Obama’s appointments suggest he has two models in mind. His selection of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State imitates Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals,” apparently motivated by a desire to co-opt his main political competition in the Democratic Party. Admirers of Lincoln’s cabinet, however, have neglected to mention that it proved quite unworkable and Lincoln had to run the Civil War around it.

In this respect, we must understand that unless a secretary of state enjoys 110% support from the president, the post is one of the weakest in the cabinet. The budget is small, the employees few, and nearby sits the Congress, always ready to offer advice and admonition. The secretary often bears bad news for a president, requiring him to spend precious political capital his advisors would rather retain for domestic use. Secretary-designate Clinton therefore will have to convince Washington and the world very quickly that she really does represent President Obama.

The second model is reflected by the appointment of General Jones as National Security Advisor. This appears to replicate President George H. W. Bush’s selection of General Scowcroft, an experienced and disciplined practitioner of the bureaucratic arts. In 1989-92, Scowcroft skillfully avoided the usual clashes between the White House and the State Department that often disfigures American foreign policy.

Most important is the overall combination. The president-elect has drawn on “the pragmatics” from both parties: Senator Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General James Jones, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and Attorney General Eric Holder. All have “centrist” track records, not as great conceptualizers but rather as people who know how to get things done and disparage ideological rigidity.

President Obama, however, was elected on the theme of change. He and his team of pragmatics will face three quick tests of leadership: the economy, the War on Terrorism, and Russia.

The Economy

The U.S. economy must be Obama’s central focus, which has an important international dimension. Two leaders, Britain’s Gordon Brown and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, have filled the vacuum produced by President Bush’s eclipse as his unpopular presidency winds down in the midst of a disastrous made-in America economic crisis. Sarkozy, in particular, has asserted a French role. Still, one should notice that the G-8 have given way to the G-20. In that larger forum, the United States, rather than the Europeans, can offer broad leadership. A point to watch will be the U.S. relationship with China, both in trying to revive the global economy and to increase environmental standards. President Obama may also have a tricky passage within his own party, whose protectionist wing in Congress will have the lopsided U.S.-China trade imbalance in its sight.

The War on Terrorism

There are both conceptual and geopolitical issues regarding the War on Terrorism. Among the national security team, the Attorney General-designate Eric Holder will play an important role. The president-elect, a part-time professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, not only wants to close the Guantanamo prison but also has spoken of using the U.S. civilian court system to deal with terrorists. This signals a very different approach from the Bush era.

The geopolitical side to the war includes Iraq, the Arab-Israeli “peace process,” and above all, Iran. A clue to Obama’s strategy may be found in that quintessential statement of the pragmatics, the Baker-Hamilton Study Group of 2006. Now almost forgotten, President Bush rejected its main recommendation for an Iraqi draw down, choosing instead the “surge.”

The Study Group, however, had other suggestions, including diplomatic overtures to Syria and Iran, and fresh Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Arguably, the Annapolis Conference in January 2008 can be traced to Baker-Hamilton. Now, as the military focus shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, we should therefore expect a direct diplomatic attempt to convert the arsonists in Damascus and Tehran into firefighters. Indeed, Senator Clinton advocated the invention of a regional “stability forum.” Obama seems convinced that a kind of ultimatum can be handed to Iran: no terrorism and no nukes equals entry into the American-led paradise, or failing that, more political isolation and economic sanctions. The president-elect has not ruled out force, including a restriction on Iran’s import of refined petroleum products.

The pragmatics may agree on the importance of attempting Iranian and Syrian diplomatic conversions, but they are split over how to handle the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. All acknowledge the necessity of a “process”; but some, notably the Brzezinski-Scowcroft wing, think an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is an essential first step, more so than any other move, and that a proclaimed U.S. plan of settlement is a vital part of achieving it. Others, including most of the pragmatics, argue that a quick agreement is not attainable, especially given Palestinian weakness and Israel’s electoral schedule.

The Middle East, of course, has been known justifiably as a burial ground for diplomatic reputations. Therefore, we can expect a certain amount of “due diligence” before either the president or the secretary of state fling themselves into a forward position on such initiatives. The pragmatics, after all, rest their prestige on knowing “how to do it.”


Third, and last, will be the Russian test. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have made crystal clear in the wake of the Georgia clash that they do not regard the post-Cold War settlement in Europe, especially NATO’s expansion beyond the German border, as legitimate. Where will NATO take its stand? Will Georgia and Ukraine be admitted, an idea firmly opposed for now by France and Germany? Obama has been lukewarm about deploying parts of a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland; the pragmatics do not all agree on the importance of this deployment either. NATO, however, supported it on December 3, 2008, laying down a marker for the Russians and the incoming administration.

What Obama does on this matter will also be seen in concert with his requests of the Europeans for more help in Afghanistan, as additional U.S. troops are deployed. Consequently, European popular acclaim for the new president may not last long.


President-elect Obama has cast his lot with the “pragmatics” of both parties, thereby fashioning a sturdy coalition or consensus. This is in keeping with his political pattern. Co-opting Senator Clinton, although obviously a political choice, brings to the post of secretary of state a personality whose foreign policy positions are also those of the same consensus, exemplified by the Baker-Hamilton Study Group.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment has greeted Obama’s appointment with some relief; none of them are dogmatists. They know how to move from point A (where we are) to point B (were we would like to be) when point B appears realistic. But the record of the pragmatic types on defining point B is not so stellar. Had it been up to most of them, Saddam would still be in Kuwait, Germany might still be divided, and most recently, the Iraq surge would not have been tried, consigning the United States to disastrous defeat. The question about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy is therefore not competence but direction. Will the pragmatics lead him or will he lead them?

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Dr. Harvey Sicherman

Dr. Harvey Sicherman was President and Director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He served as Special Assistant to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr. (1981-82) and was a member of the policy planning staff of Secretary of State James A. Baker, III (1991-1992).