A Look at Obama’s Second Term Foreign Policy Team

This week saw the real beginning of the Obama second term foreign policy. Secretary of State John Kerry made his first official trip overseas as secretary and Hagel was sworn in as Secretary of Defense.

However, not everything is going smoothly for the administration, especially in terms of the Kerry trip. The highlight of the trip was a meeting with the Syrian opposition in Rome. However, the opposition leaders at first indicated that they weren’t interested in attending the meeting because they saw little benefit in terms of material support. Syrian rebels are so frustrated by empty promises of help to overthrow President Bashar Assad that they had threatened to boycott a Thursday meeting in Rome of the Friends of Syria.

The US lured the Syrian rebels back to the meeting with the lure of tangible assistance. The White House indicated it was considering a shift in policy and could send the rebels non lethal materials and provides military training.

The Syrian rebels were rewarded for their returning to the conference. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday that the United States plans for the first time to provide non-lethal aid, including food rations, vehicles, communications equipment, night vision gear, and medical supplies. The Obama administration will also provide an additional $60 million, adding to the $385 million of humanitarian aid already given and $54 million in equipment, medical supplies, and other non-lethal assistance. Speaking at an international conference on Syria in Rome, Kerry said that the decision was the result of “the brutality of superior armed force propped up by foreign fighters from Iran and Hezbollah.”

Kerry also sharpened his criticism of the Syrian president on Wednesday in Paris, “He (Assad) needs to know he cannot shoot his way out of this, so we need to convince him of that and I think the opposition needs more help in order to be able to do that. And we are working together to have a united position.”

Kerry’s desire for an American solution, however, is complicated by Russia’s support of Syrian President Assad and America’s need for Russian support in two other critical Middle Eastern issues – encouraging Iran to stop nuclear weapons development and the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Russia controls one of the major routes for American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the northern supply route, that wends its way from Kabul through the Salang Tunnel into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Moving heavy equipment from Afghanistan economically requires Russian assistance. Should the US decide to provide the Syrian rebels with more equipment, especially heavy weapons, the one secure land route for Americans in Afghanistan may disappear.

Yet, Syria remains a problem. As the conflict continues, the rebels are becoming more aggressive and the US fears an al Qaeda led Syrian opposition. In order to counter that, the US wants the moderate Syrian opposition to start providing traditional government services in areas it controls in order to cement its authority and relationship with Syrian civilians. The aim is to also show Assad that the rebels will eventually win.

Russia has said that insisting on Assad’s departure as a condition for peace negotiations between the government and the opposition would prevent such talks from ever taking place. The opposition, backed by the United States and much of Europe, has made plain Assad can play no role in a future Syrian government

Where Obama really needs Russian help is in the current negotiations with Iran – which fills the top place in priorities in Obama’s Middle East policy. The US needs Russia’s support in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations comprising the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, that were held in the Kazakh city of Almaty this week. The P5+1 nations have already held three rounds of unsuccessful negotiations with Iran last year under the leadership of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The first round of negotiations was held in Istanbul, Turkey, in April, followed by talks in the Iraqi capital Baghdad in May and in Moscow in June. Although Iran is reeling from economic sanctions, it refuses to budge on its nuclear program.

Obama’s Second Term Foreign Policy

Secretary Kerry’s first foreign trip does give an inkling of Obama Administration priorities for the second term. He started off with traditional Western European allies like the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. He then moves to the Middle East: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Israel is left to a later trip.

Clearly, given the focus on Syria in Europe, it is obvious that Syria will remain a major subject in the Middle Eastern phase of the trip. Turkey is a front line nation in the Syrian conflict and any aid will likely move through that country. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are suspected of providing various aids to the Syrian Rebels including weapons.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are also GCC nations that are concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian capabilities to hamper the movement of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

It appears that rather than launching any initiative in the region, the Obama policy for the region is to keep the two major trouble spots, Syria and Iran, under control so Obama can pursue a domestic agenda. There is no desire to transform American foreign policy or pursue a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians – the first time that has not been a major goal for a president in modern American history.

Rather, Obama seems more concerned with holding the lids on major trouble spots so they will not interfere with domestic policies like immigration reform, spending, taxes, Obamacare, and gun control. A crisis in the Middle East would cost political capital and divert the Congress from his agenda.

It is unlikely that the new foreign policy team will either disagree with Obama or suggest new initiatives. One reason is that the new foreign policy team doesn’t have the political clout of the old team. Hillary Clinton was a political power herself and could take her disagreements with Obama to the people. Bob Gates, DoD Secretary, was a Bush holdover and could rouse Republican opposition if necessary. CIA Director David Petraeus was a popular American General who would have also been able to go to the American people.

That has changed.

CIA director Brennan will continue the” war on terror” in the same manner that it has been carried on for both the Obama and Bush Administration.

Kerry and Hagel are Senate foreign policy experts who, along with Vice President Biden have spend decades in the US Senate, without having to actually pursue any foreign policy. Senator Hagel served 14 years in the U.S. Senate, and another 10 as a congressional staffer and lobbyist on the Hill. Vice President Biden spent 36 years and John Kerry 28 years in the U.S. Senate. Combined, America’s foreign policy team has spent 78 years in the U.S. Senate, with two of the senators having spent much of their adult lives on the Hill.

Senators don’t manage programs, implement policies, or run large complex bureaucracies. Achieving a diplomatic deal on some critical matter is only half the challenge, often the greater challenge is carrying it out. It is not a senator’s job to carry out the laws they pass, but to get 50 percent plus one votes to get them approved. They do not tend to see the world in terms of decades-long grand strategies which is what foreign policy should be about. In other words, the Obama foreign policy team is more attuned to political survival, which is more likely to be tamping down a crisis rather than resolving it.

With a foreign policy team that is more attuned to political issues and untrained in developing and implementing foreign policy, there is little likelihood that Obama will seriously pursue and try to implement any major initiatives on either Syria or Iran. The result will be flawed policy implementation, no grand strategy in the region, mixed messages to allies, and a foreign policy attuned to polls rather than American or regional interests. It is more likely that any leadership in the region will come from elsewhere, not the White House.