The Two Sides of Obama Foreign Policy and What it means to the Middle East
This week saw a reported rift over Egypt between Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Reports in a liberal blog with connections close to the White House say John Kerry didn’t agree with Susan Rice on major portions of the White House’s Egypt policy, and he made a deliberate and conscious decision not to mention Morsi in his Cairo meetings. Previously, Rice told Kerry he should speak publicly and privately about ousted Egyptian President Morsi’s trial while in the country earlier this month. Instead, the secretary of State said publicly that Egypt was “on the path to democracy.” Sources also said he didn’t discuss Morsi in his private meetings with Egyptian officials either.
Rice wasn’t happy about Kerry’s deviation from the White House policy. But disagreements between national security advisors and secretaries of state aren’t anything new.
There has usually been a difference between State Department and National Security Council policy and recommendations. The State Department is more non-political and takes a more long term view of foreign affairs. The National Security Council, which is appointed by the president, is more political and more likely to view policy in terms of domestic political advantage or the president’s agenda.
Presidents have also viewed the two foreign policy teams differently. While some presidents have relied heavily upon the State Department and relegated the NSC to a minor role, other presidents have tilted the other way and made the national security advisor the major foreign policy expert.
The best example of this was Henry Kissinger during the Nixon Administration. Nixon had a distrust of the State Department and relied heavily on Kissinger to develop and implement foreign policy. Ironically, however, Kissinger was to later become Secretary of State and transferred his considerable personal influence to the former “enemy.”
Under Obama, the State Department has sat outside the inner circle of power. In his first term, it was the political “Siberia” for his major Democratic competitor, Hillary Clinton. Real power was relegated to a series of “czars,” who had portfolio to handle the major foreign policy issues.
Needless to say, the rivalry between the State Department and the NSC continues in the Obama Administration, with each following different goals and policies.
Kerry and the State Department
Unlike many Secretaries of State, John Kerry comes to the position with his own political base. As a long time senator from Massachusetts and former presidential nominee in 2004, he has national name recognition and a political base. He is not beholden to Obama for power and knows that he could probably return to Massachusetts and run for the US Senate again if he so desired.
Kerry is also aware as a member of the US Senate that if Obama decides to “fire” him for his difference in policy, serious questions and a possible inquiry would be held by the Senate. Since Obama is in political trouble – even inside his own party – he can’t afford any more scandal. This gives Kerry considerably more latitude to ignore White House diktat.
Kerry’s style is a function of his years in the US Senate, which relies on developing personal relationships with other senators. This works to his advantage on the international scene.
The White House Foreign Policy Team
To understand what drives White House foreign policy, one has to understand who has the political power in the Obama White House. In this case, the key person is Valerie Jarrett, who is considered the single, most influential person in the Obama White House. She has been called Obama’s “Rasputin.” Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who clashed often with Jarrett, likened her and senior aide Peter Rouse to Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay.
Jarrett’s personal friendship with the president and first lady dates back more than two decades, before the couple was married, and before Barack Obama launched his political career in Chicago. The president has said he views her “like a sibling” and trusts her “completely.” As result, she enjoys “unlimited, almost mystical access” to the president.
Jarrett was born in Iran, which has some accusing her of favoring Iran and favoring a softer approach to their nuclear program, even though her parents were Western and not Iranian.
Although her job description says she serves as “chief liaison to the business community, state and local governments, and the professional left,” her influence throughout the White House is undeniable. She commands a staff of nearly three dozen and has a hand in decisions ranging from the invitation list to state dinners and what gifts to give foreign leaders, to who should be nominated to the Supreme Court, appointed to a vacant ambassadorship, or awarded the President Medal of Freedom. Survival inside the White House depends on being her friend. Her enemies quickly disappear. One reason why the current Secretary of Human Services, Sibelius, has survived the continuing scandals surrounding Obamacare is her close friendship with Jarrett.
Jarrett’s friendship with Susan Rice and Samantha Power has cemented their position inside the White House and Obama’s foreign policy. While Kerry has an outside political base he can rely upon, their power flows from Obama and they are loyal to him.
However, the difference isn’t just about who is closer to Obama. Rice and Power sees foreign policy in a different light and this is setting up the current difference between the State Department and the White House.
Rice and Kerry both have different styles. Kerry, who worked in the Senate, which relies on compromise and geniality, is more diplomatic. Rice is known to have sharp elbows and is known for a more combative tone. Rice has reportedly clashed with other administration officials, such as former Sudan Special Envoy Scott Gration. “Even more so than Donilon … [Rice] has a temper that needs tempering,” Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote at The Daily Beast. “And unlike Donilon, she often rushes to judgment, and then digs in. She’ll have to learn to count to one hundred—I mean one thousand—before making up her mind, and meantime, listen to different views carefully.”
However, Rice is known to be loyal to Obama. She was his premier foreign policy adviser since the 2008 presidential campaign. She is also a close personal friend of both Michelle Obama. As a result, Rice is an Obama insider, with a personal friendship with the president – not foreign policy expertise – as her greatest asset. She worked hard to preserve her relationship with the president while serving as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for four years, spending more time in Washington than any of her predecessors.
Rice was the point person during the Benghazi attacks and damaged her reputation by claiming the riots were a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video. That was at the heart of her decision to withdraw her name from consideration as Secretary of State – a nomination that required the consent of the Senate and a bruising confirmation battle. Instead, she was given the position of National Security Advisor, which doesn’t need confirmation by the Senate.
In the Obama White House, the NSC position has more power as foreign policy decisions flow from there rather than the State Department. Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution said, “For better or worse, the Obama administration… Its chosen concept is central power—the idea that everything flows to and from the National Security Council.”
While Kerry is seen as more pragmatic, Rice is seen as a tool to further Obama’s world view via US foreign policy. The New York Times said of her appointment, (Rice) “would bring a more muscular, idealistic cast to Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.”
The other foreign policy decision maker in the Obama inner circle is Samantha Power, the ambassador to the UN. In many ways, she and her writings (which were responsible for her Pulitzer Prize in 2003) are at the core of the Obama foreign policy that eschews strategic interests for “humanitarian” issues. As such, this explains the stance taken by Obama during the Arab Spring.
Power has been a key player in the Obama position towards Syria, although she failed attend a critical UN emergency meeting on the Syrian CW crisis in August because she was in Ireland on a personal trip to visit family (she was born in Ireland). This reflects one of her weaknesses – she is more focused on ideology and less interested in practical diplomacy. The reality is that UN ambassadors need to be practical in order to win other nations over to the American side of an issue.
Obama’s speech a couple of months ago on Syria was a close reflection of Power’s views. The overwhelming emphasis was on humanitarian goals, with a brief, secondary, and noticeably weak effort to buttress that case with talk about threats to American interests. Power’s core argument in her writings is that American foreign policy has historically “refused to take risks” for humanitarian ends. Power chastises American leaders for declining to “invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital” necessary to prevent massacres. U.S. officials, she complains, consistently “play up the futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention.”
Ironically, despite her writings, Power is an opponent of the use of military power in the Middle East, specifically Syria. “There are other interests at play,” she told the Politico, noting that military action in the Middle East can affect oil prices and the U.S. economy. “None of us would pretend that we are a single-issue administration.
White House/State Department Foreign Policy Differences
The philosophical difference between the White House and the State Department under Obama has impacted US foreign policy. Kerry spent his first months as Secretary of State working to repair the U.S.-Russia relationship and use that as a mechanism to find a political solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and the civil war in Syria. Kerry believes he has developed a relation with the Russian Foreign Minister that can be used to reach an agreement on these problems. Rice, by contrast has traded public insults with her Russian counterpart at the U.N.
In regards to Syria, administration officials and other close supporters of the White House say Rice in internal meetings has supported a no-fly zone for Syria and is wary of arming the more liberal elements of Syria’s opposition.
Kerry has worked to reach an international settlement on Syria in conjunction with the Russians. Much of his success has relied upon his closer working relationship with the Russians, who have traditionally been a close supporter of Assad.
The rift over Egypt has been a long time in the making. Well before Kerry and Rice disagreed publicly on Egypt, the White House and the State Department clashed privately over the administration’s Egypt policy. During a months-long administration review of U.S. military aid to Egypt, the State Department and Defense Department pushed internally to preserve most of the assistance, while Rice insisted most military aid be suspended, pending more progress by the Egyptian government.
“There are real differences in the fundamental approach to Egypt between Susan Rice and John Kerry,” one Washington Egypt expert with close ties to the administration told a political blog. “We wouldn’t have had any aid suspension at all if it had been up to John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.”
The other problem is that there is no conflicting opinion within the inner circle to give Obama a sense of foreign policy balance. With Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and David Petraeus out of the way, the president has all but eliminated any dissenting viewpoints. Kerry is the only person in the Administration with the political power and will to disagree with the Jarrett/Rice/Powers foreign policy triumvirate.
The problem with conflicting foreign policy coming from two parts of the administration is deciding which one to believe and work with. In Egypt, officials are receiving diverging messages from the U.S. government’s various parts, causing confusion as they try to decide how to react to recent U.S. actions. For example, the administration has not told the government of Egypt what exactly it must do to get the partial aid suspension lifted, said a source close to the Egyptian government.
In terms of understanding White House foreign policy it is important to remember that Samantha Power is the philosopher of White House foreign policy – pushing “humanitarian” issues rather than strategic interests. Susan Rice is the executor of that policy through her control of the NSC. And, Valerie Jarrett provides the political cover by getting Obama’s approval and neutralizing any conflicting opinions.
How governments deal with the US today depends on their goals. If the goal is short term and focuses on humanitarian issues, it pays to focus on the Power/Rice/Jarrett policy team, which will give faster results and has the ear of Obama. However, for long term relations that focus on strategic issues that will outlive the current administration, the best bet is to focus on the State Department/Kerry route, which is based on long term US foreign policy and is more likely to be followed after Obama leaves office in three years.
International Security Demands U.S. Intercontinental-Range Missiles
By Michaela Dodge
November 20, 2013
Issue Brief #4092
Since the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) entered into force in February 2011, the U.S. has borne a significant majority of the nuclear arms reductions required under the treaty. Russia, the other party to the treaty, has been increasing the number of its deployed nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, which the treaty allows. Now, according to a document prepared by the Office of the Secretary of Defense-Policy to the Senate Intercontinental-Range Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Coalition, the Administration is planning on eliminating an ICBM squadron to allegedly comply with New START. Not only would such a move be unwise and imprudent at this time, but the U.S. does not need to eliminate an ICBM squadron to meet New START’s limits.
The Other “Pivot to Asia” – The Shifting Strategic Importance of Gulf Petroleum
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 18, 2013
It is all too easy to focus on energy developments in the United States and lose sight of the overall pattern of changes in world energy production and consumption. The fact is, however, that the Department of Energy does not forecast U.S. energy independence in its reference case – only a dip to 37% dependence on foreign oil by 2040. It does not mean that the US is free of the need to pay world oil prices in a crisis. Far more important, the US already imports some $2.4 trillion worth of goods to sustain a $14 trillion economy, and some $1.2 trillion of these steadily rising imports are dependent on the stable flow of MENA, and particularly Gulf, oil and gas exports to Europe and Asia.
Engaging the Muslim World
By Walter Douglas
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 18, 2013
Public diplomacy supports the interests of the United States by advancing American goals outside the traditional arena of government-to-government relations. Since 9/11, with the rise of al Qaeda and other violent organizations that virulently oppose the United States, public diplomacy in Muslim-majority countries has become an instrument to blunt or isolate popular support for these organizations. Efforts in this direction complement traditional public diplomacy that explains American policies and society to foreign publics. Public diplomacy must take many paths to accomplish its goals in the Arab Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the geographic focus of this study. Their populations are not monolithic. In fact, they are extremely varied within states and across regions. The best public diplomacy is tailored to these differences, with multiple approaches to strategically important segments in each country.
Competing Visions of Islam: From Osama bin Laden to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI
By Alan Luxenberg
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Some conservatives mistake Islam, the religion, with Islamism, a political ideology (of several variants); conversely, some liberals mistake criticism of Islamism with criticism of Islam. Worse, both sides sometimes arrogate to themselves the right to define Islam – either as a religion of war or as a religion of peace. But every religion can be defined only by its adherents, and those adherents themselves may define the same religion differently. Indeed, Michael Doran famously analyzed the events of 9/11 as the product of “somebody else’s civil war,” by which he meant the war among Muslims to define Islam. If Osama bin Laden represented one end of that spectrum, then the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, represents the other. As President Obama prepares to receive the King this Friday, it behooves all Americans to take the measure of this King and his vision of Islam, explore why that vision matters, and what it means for the United States.
The Middle East Peace Process: Time for a Reality Check
By Bruno Macaes
German Marshall Fund
November 15, 2013
While a new round of peace negotiations has opened in July 2013, the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be framed by general misperceptions and illusions. This brief takes a dispassionate look at the factual and political realities of the Middle East peace process today, and highlights how these illusions constitute an obstacle to realistic compromises. Finally, the author provides concrete solutions for enhanced transatlantic cooperation in the peace process.Read more…
IAEA Chief Cites Modest Iran Nuclear Progress; Official Report Due
By Michael Adler
Nov 15, 2013
Iran has not significantly accelerated its nuclear program in recent months, UN nuclear chief Yukiya Amano told Breaking Defense. This could be a sign that Iran hopes to create favorable conditions for a deal with the United States, which wants the Islamic Republic to freeze its program at its current level and not add to its nuclear capabilities. Amano’s International Atomic Energy Agency is to release a report later this week on Iran. The last report was filed on August 28, so the two-and-a-half months covered corresponds roughly to the time since Hassan Rouhani took office as Iranian president last August 3.
Why a Nuclear Deal with Iran Is So Hard
By Michael Eisenstadt
November 20, 2013
It should have come as no surprise when talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva two weeks ago ended without an interim confidence-building agreement — apparently because the Islamic Republic could not accept a revised draft agreement that did not recognize its “right to enrich.” Negotiations with Iran have always been difficult, protracted affairs — in this case, made more fraught by differences between France and the other members of the P5+1. Diplomacy has been further complicated by the fact that Tehran hopes to use negotiations to confirm (if not legitimize) its status as a nuclear threshold state, while preserving a degree of ambiguity regarding its actual capabilities — an outcome that the P5+1 is not likely to — or at least should not — agree to. Finding a way through these thickets will be key if nuclear diplomacy with Iran is to succeed.
U.S. Relations With Allies In Free Fall
By Michael Doran
November 18, 2013
Israeli-American relations are in free fall. Why? On the face of it the key issue is the terms of the draft deal with Iran that Secretary of State John Kerry was reportedly ready to sign in Geneva, week before last. Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated yet again that it is “a bad deal.” And last week Israel’s intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, claimed the concessions to Tehran that the United States is contemplating will funnel between $20 and $40 billion to Iran’s coffers. The State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, dismissed Steinitz as a fabulist. “Without going into specifics about what we’re considering, that number, I can assure you, is inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality,” she said. The disagreement over the deal is significant; there can be no doubt. But the debate over its terms diverts attention from another factor of great significance—namely, Netanyahu’s growing distrust, in general, of the Obama administration.Read more…