Mounzer Sleiman PhD,
Director of the Center for American and Arab Studies. April 11, 2009


A constant of American foreign policy is that campaign promises will never match the actual foreign policy of an American president. Pledges made to attract voters, energize supporters and build campaign treasuries are focused on narrow special interests and what pollsters say is the best tactic to win an election.
The 2008 election of Barak Obama must be seen in this same context. What Obama promised his supporters and voters in last year’s campaign will rarely reflect actual foreign policy. President Obama must now act in American best interests in order to win reelection, while dealing with a State Department bureaucracy that is in control his biggest presidential campaign opponent and has a reputation of foiling presidential foreign policy initiatives for two centuries.
A review of the first two months of the Obama Administration indicates several trends that may play out in the next four years. Diplomatic blunders with traditional allies, reneging on promise made to Gen. zini to be the ambassador in Iraq, vague diplomatic initiatives with countries like Russia, mixed messages and gesture to deal with Iran in addition of selecting Dennis Ross as top advisor for Gulf region and Iran (his expertise is very questionable in this area) show that the Obama Administration is still trying to define its foreign policy. At the same time, the inclusion of several non-experts in his foreign policy team indicate that much of the foreign policy expertise and gravitas will not be found in the cabinet, but at Civil Service levels of the State Department, Pentagon, and Intelligence community.


In many ways, a profile of Obama’s national security team is a profile of the potential problems that the US government could experience in the next four years. The team consists of politicians with little solid national security experience, potential political opponents Obama, and several national security experts.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

By bringing Hillary Clinton into his administration, Obama has managed to seal some of the political fractures that occurred when he beat Clinton for the presidential nomination and refused to pick her as his Vice Presidential candidate. On the other hand, he has put his most powerful political opponent in charge of the one department that has a reputation for bucking the White House. As long as Obama remains popular and America’s national security isn’t threatened, he has little to fear from the State Department. However, if his popularity falls and he is seen as a liability to the Democratic Party, this department could have a dramatic effect on how his foreign policy is seen by the public.

Hillary Clinton has little experience in national security affairs. Although she was First Lady from 1993 to 2001 and a senator from 2001 to 2009, she has never had any professional experience in the Foreign Service or national security. Her strength is as a political infighter and a national political figure with a powerful voter base.
The Obama administration will not use Clinton and her office to lead foreign policy initiatives – which are expected to be developed at the White House instead. She is expected to provide a very public face to the department and normal diplomatic activities. She is also expected to cover Obama’s political flank.

Since Clinton is a national political figure, who needs a national platform to remain visible, she is not expected to resign the position unless there is a very serious policy difference or the Obama Administration is in serious trouble. If Clinton does resign before 2012, it would probably be to challenge him for the Democratic nomination as President.

James Jones

The fact that Obama picked James Jones to be his National Security Advisor indicates that he intends to run foreign policy from the White House rather than the State Department. Jones was the Commandant of the US Marine Corps, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe during his career. He was also a company commander in Vietnam in the 1960s. His choice, along with the retention of Gates at Defense, relieved many who were concerned that Obama might find himself overwhelmed with the responsibilities of Commander-in-Chief.

Jones also served in the Bush Administration. He was asked by Secretary of State Rice to be Deputy Secretary of State, but declined the honor. He was the Chairman of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq and a special envoy for Middle East security.

The choice of a military man for NSC, rather than an academic, means President Obama will have sound military advice on, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the “war on terror”. He will also have a national security advisor who better understands force projection, the capabilities of American power, and its limits. And, as a player in Pentagon politics, he understands the intricacies of the Department of Defense.

Jones’ success as a National Security Advisor depends to a great extent on the developing relationship with President Obama. If they work closely and Obama comes to trust his judgment and advice, Jones will become the major player in developing national security policy.

However, history shows that there is usually considerable conflict between State Department policies and the National Security Council. Jones will face a politically powerful Secretary of State and a foreign service that traditionally distrusts the NSC. Since Jones doesn’t have any political base, his success and future will depend on quickly gaining Obama’s trust. If he is unable to do that, Jones will be quickly marginalized.

Robert Gates

Robert Gates was the Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush and is continuing in that role under President Obama. He has the most national security experience in the Obama national security team and provides important continuity.

Gates has spent much of his career in the intelligence community. He joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1966 and rose to the position of Director of the CIA. He was also in Air Force Intelligence during his military career. He accepted the position of Secretary of Defense under President Bush in 2006 after it was generally accepted that the current SecDef, Donald Rumsfeld had mismanaged the War in Iraq.

Like President Bush, Gates accepts the position that the US is involved in a “war on terror”. However, he has advocated the position that this war can’t be fought solely by the military, but through economic support and strengthening local government. This strategy had a great affect on the course of the war in Iraq and has been credited with the improved security situation with the recognition of still fragile security environment.

Gates has several problems facing him in the next four years. Obviously the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will be at the top of his agenda, even though there is a planned drawdown of troops in Iraq.

Gates will also be heavily engaged in an evolution of the Department of Defense. The Obama Administration is planning serious cuts in defense spending and Gates will have to make decisions on which major defense programs to cut. At the same time, he will continue to shift the emphasis from conventional warfare to counterinsurgency capabilities that will better counter the asymmetric warfare seen in the 21st century.

Gates tenure as SecDef is tenuous. As a Bush appointee, he has little political clout in the White House and many of Obama’s supporters would prefer a defense secretary more in line with Obama’s political philosophy. He could be asked to leave if some problems occur in the Pentagon or he might resign if he has major policy problems with the Obama Administration.

Gates may find political support from Hillary Clinton. He has been an advocate for many State Department programs like foreign aid that he sees as critical to counter insurgency warfare. If there is to be major opposition to Obama’s foreign policy or national security initiatives, it could very well come from a Clinton – State/Gates – Defense axis.

Eric Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder has sound career experience, joining the US Justice Department in 1976, serving as a DC judge, and becoming the Deputy Attorney General under President Clinton in 1997. In 2007, he became a campaign advisor for Senator Obama when he decided to run for President. He has been appointed by both Presidents Clinton and Reagan, and his policies on the treatment of “terrorists” and the “war on terrorism” has varied sometimes from the campaign statements of his boss, President Obama. In fact, it was his firm stand on many of these issues that won votes from Republican senators who supported his nomination.

Despite this, Holder has taken several controversial stands that could impact his position. His stands on civil liberties, surveillance and data mining have often advocated more powers for the government, which could conflict with many Obama appointees. On the other side of the spectrum, his strong opposition to the right of Americans to own firearms has created opposition from conservatives.

Holder will have to walk a narrow path between those who want strong government powers to prevent another “terrorist attack” and those who are afraid of the erosion of personal liberties. To a large extent, his success or failure may depend on whether or not the US suffers another major attack. If it does he may become the administrations sacrificial lamb.

Janet Napolitano

Napolitano has little national security experience. President Clinton appointed her as United States Attorney for Arizona and she has been elected as Arizona Attorney General and Governor. Her experience in Homeland Security is limited to her position as head of the Arizona National Guard and the fact that Arizona has a border with Mexico.

Napolitano is a savvy politician who left the Arizona governorship to take the position as Director of Homeland Security. Many had expected her to challenge Senator John McCain for his senate seat in 2010. Her move to Washington DC indicates that she sees her future in the Washington Administration, not in politics.

Napolitano is expected to provide sound leadership to Homeland Security. Her focus will probably be in technological advances and immigration reform. The technological innovations will cause problems with civil libertarians while her stands on immigration reform will create serious opposition with conservative groups.

Napolitano’s future in Homeland Security depends a great deal on whether terrorists attack the United States. Her decision to leave Arizona politics for Obama’s cabinet has cut her off from her political base and if an attack should succeed, she will probably be forced to resign and return to private practice.

Leon Panetta

Panetta, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has served in government in many positions, as a congressman, Director on the Office of Management and Budget and Chief of Staff for President Bill Clinton. He also served in the Army in the mid 1960s. However, his lack of intelligence experience has troubled many in Washington.

The CIA has a tarnished reputation thanks to bad and politically manipulated intelligence work before 9-11 and its many missteps in the “war on terror”. Panetta’s challenge is to restore the agency’s reputation and make it a valued part of the Obama national security team.

Panetta earned a reputation during the Bush administration as a critic of CIA practices in the “war on terror”. During his confirmation hearings he indicated that would focus on improving intelligence gathering on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Al Qaeda, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

Given the fact that the American intelligence community is a closed one, Panetta may find it hard to function within the CIA bureaucracy. Like the State Department, the CIA has a reputation for leaking damaging information that will hinder political appointees, while furthering the agenda of the bureaucracy.

Susan Rice

Susan Rice has been tapped to be the Ambassador to the United Nations. She was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Clinton. She was also a Special Assistant to the President and on the National Security Council from 1993 to 1997.

Rice has been a policy expert for the Democratic Party. She was a Senior Fellow for the Brookings Institution during the last eight years. She was also a senior foreign policy advisor for presidential candidates Obama and Kerry.

Since leaving the Clinton Administration, Rice has written extensively, particularly on the genocide in Darfur. She has pushed a much more aggressive American position on Sudan, including the possible use of military force in 2005 and 2006. According to the Washington Post, while in the Clinton Administration, she was instrumental in the decision not to extradite Osama Ben Laden from the Sudan.

Rice’s professional and academic background is solely based on African issues. Many observers from all sides of the American political spectrum think Rice was not picked for her experience alone but to project the image of diversity of gender and race in Obama administration. There are some observers who anticipate some frictions between her and Secretary Clinton in executing the administration foreign policy on the world stage.

Dennis Blair

As the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair brings a lifetime of intelligence experience to this relatively new position. He is a graduate of the US Naval Academy and finished his military career as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command. He has served on the National Security Council Staff and was Associate Director of Intelligence for Military Support.

Blair is a pragmatist who knows how to merge the priorities of the often conflicting interests of the military and intelligence communities. His area of expertise was Asia and he has drawn criticism for his view that China isn’t a threat to American interests.

Blair faced lately few setbacks that could have weakened his position; it has been a couple of his choices for positions in the intelligence community. The first was his naming of Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, a board of the nation’s top intelligence analysts. His criticism of Israeli intransigence immediately caused the Israeli lobby to protest his nomination. Pressure from Congress, including Senator Joe Lieberman, eventually caused the White House to drop support for Freeman’s nomination and he eventually pulled his name.

Another controversy is Blair’s naming of John Deutch, a former CIA Director, to a temporary panel that will investigate spy satellite programs. Deutch resigned when it was discovered that he had classified documents at his home. Although Deutch was pardoned by Clinton and had his security clearance reinstated during the Bush administration, so the intelligence community could consult with him, there is concern that Blair may not be good at picking subordinates.

Overall, Blair’s’ reputation is good and these controversies will not cripple him. Since the position of Director of National Intelligence is a relatively new one, Blair will have the opportunity to shape the office and its role in the national security apparatus. As a military intelligence expert on a team that has many players with little national security experience, Blair could become a major force in the development and execution of policy in the Obama Administration.



Iran will figure largely in the Obama Administration’s national security policy. Its nuclear ambitions and growing regional projection of power and influence, and its commanding position along the Strait of Hormuz make Iran a regional issue that must be dealt with.

The Obama Administration started off on the wrong foot when it was disclosed that Obama had asked Russia to help stop the Iranian nuclear program in return for canceling the building of an ABM system in Eastern Europe. This signaled weakness in dealing with Iran and shook up U.S. allies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Future Iranian nuclear policy will depend largely on the US intelligence community and its ability to monitor developments. This is where Panetta’s lack of intelligence experience may hurt the administration. One of the criticisms of the CIA recently has been its weak human intelligence capabilities, and given Panetta’s inexperience, he will be unlikely to shake up the CIA enough to make the necessary improvements. This will force the administration to rely upon other nations like Israel for intelligence and could make American policy towards Iran a hostage to Israeli interests.

Countering Iran and its growing influence in the region will be pushed to the center stage by the new Israeli government and nervous Arab rulers. Jones and Gates both have experience in the “counter insurgency war” in both Iraq and Afghanistan and will be able to help the administration to make sound decisions in that regard.

Ironically, the amount of attention given to Iran may depend on the Israeli influence in the Obama Administration. Israel has made it clear that they are concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and have held out the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets. As a result, it’s possible that while other issues like Afghanistan may require more American attention, Israeli pressure could force Obama to redirect national priorities.


Policy towards Israel and the Palestinian state remains hostage to American electoral strategy. In the 2008 election, Obama’s success in winning swing states like Florida was due to strong support among American Jews. Consequently, the administration will be very careful in instituting any policy that is perceived as anti-Israel.

An example of the trouble that can come from taking a new path was seen in the nomination of Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman was perceived as being too pro-Arab. In his letter withdrawing his name from consideration, he said, “There is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East. The tactics of the Israel Lobby plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth. The aim of this Lobby is control of the policy process through the exercise of a veto over the appointment of people who dispute the wisdom of its views, the substitution of political correctness for analysis, and the exclusion of any and all options for decision by Americans and our government other than those that it favors.”

There is no evidence that the Obama national security team will change in regard to favoritism towards Israel. Clinton has developed a strong political base with American Jews and can be expected to be pro Israel. However, Jones as a Special Envoy for Middle East Security has worked with the Palestinian authority and may provide more balance than previous administrations.


Although the War in Iraq was a major campaign issue, once Obama became president, it became obvious that he was less interested in disengaging than merely modifying the previous Bush policies.

Although most troops will have left Iraq by 2010, a significant number of US forces will remain for security. Thus, the question is if an organized insurgency will begin to operate and what the administration’s response to it would be. It is quite possible that forces of Iraqi resistance may try to test the US and Iraqi governments in the next year to better judge the Obama Administration’s commitment to Iraq over the long run.

History has shown that American presidents do not want to be perceived as losing a war. The costs of doing so are large both politically and in terms of the legacy the president leaves. Consequently, it is unlikely that Obama will do anything that would lead voters to think he was responsible for losing Iraq.


Afghanistan is the biggest regional threat to the Obama Administration and its national security policy. During the campaign, in order to deflect criticism that he was weak on defense, Obama advocated a greater military presence in Afghanistan. He fulfilled that promise recently by deploying 21,000 more troops to that country.

However, the question remains what the role of the US is in Afghanistan. The original purpose was to oust the Taliban regime and destroy the Al Qaeda infrastructure. That was quickly done, but the mission of US forces today is much more ambiguous. Trying to provide political stabilization in a country that has a history of successfully ousting foreign armies isn’t one that should be lightly undertaken.

Afghanistan is the key to several issues that the Obama Administration must deal with. Keeping a presence in Afghanistan requires dealing with the logistical support provided by neighboring nations. At the same time, Russia is flexing its diplomatic muscle and trying to limit American influence in former Soviet republics. Then there is the instability in a nuclear armed Pakistan that could cause a crisis in the Indian Subcontinent. All of these will have an impact on Obama’s Afghanistan policy.

In order to be successful in Afghanistan, the Obama national security team has to formulate a long term policy of de-escalation instead of escalation, which stands a chance of success. Without a policy aiming to gradual withdrawal of American and Nato forces from Afghanistan, coupled with a serious drive to reach internal political reconciliation, the shadow of Vietnam and Soviet defeat in Afghanistan will loom prominently. Unfortunately, this is where the national security novices (Clinton, Panetta, Holder, and Napolitano) may do the president a disservice. As politicians, they will be more likely to recommend a “get tough” policy that will play well with the American voters, instead of formulating a reasonable and more realistic policy in the region. And, Obama, as a politician, may be tempted to listen to them instead of his military experts who realize the problem of fighting a war that cannot be won militarily.


The Obama national security team is a strange blend of skilled professionals and inexperienced politicians. And, the future of Obama’s foreign policy will depend to a large extent on who wins the confidence of the president.

Based on traditional power conflicts in previous administrations and the personalities involved, it is reasonable to expect the major conflict to be between the National Security Council and the State Department. Hillary Clinton is a strong personality and has a powerful national political base. Given her record, she will play to the American voter. James Jones is an accomplished military man who will do the President’s bidding.

This conflict may show itself in determining policy in Afghanistan. Jones, a former combat officer in Vietnam will insist on focused objectives in Afghanistan. Clinton, who will see a “victory” in Afghanistan as critical to her future political career, will advocate policies that provide political gain.

Overshadowing all of these are the 2010 elections, which, although still far away, are foreshadowing Democratic loses. If the economy remains weak, Obama may find his options in the Middle East limited. He may have to hew a more pro-Israel policy to placate Jewish voters. And, he may have to be more aggressive in Afghanistan in order not to be seen as weak on defense.

Despite all the talk about Obama’s national security team, there remains the question of Obama’s management skills. As a person without any management experience, he has shown himself to be in a learning mode when it comes to managing the national security organization.

Without strong leadership from the Oval Office, we can expect lower levels to take a greater part in foreign policy formulation. The State Department, under the political protection of Hillary Clinton will become more responsible for day-to-day foreign policy management, while the NSC will focus more on major national security policy. Major gaffes by the inexperienced members of the team, like Holder, Clinton, Napolitano, and Panetta will occur.
Although Obama promised change, it would be a mistake to conclude that US national security policy will dramatically change during the next four years. The State Department and Defense Department bureaucracies are still in place and will provide considerable inertia. And, there remains the Jewish vote that still forces American presidents to be careful about Israeli relations.

While the Obama team has some glaring weaknesses in the inexperience of several of its members, it is somewhat made up for by the strong skills and experience at NSC, DoD and DNI. If world conditions allow, they will gain in experience over the next few years. However, if a crisis occurs in the near future, that inexperience may be a real reason for concern.