What Obama's National Security Picks Mean

President Barack Obama's national security nominations show that his second term foreign policy is likely to be like that of his first four years.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a new conference in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Washington, to announce his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary as Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stands left.
President Barack Obama announces his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary on Jan. 7.

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

While much has been written about the suitability, or unsuitability, of Chuck Hagel or John O. Brennan to be the next secretary of defense and Central Intelligence Agency director, respectively, the more interesting considerations are what these appointments might mean for the national security policy of the Obama administration in the second term. Robert D. Kaplan of Stratfor, David Sanger of the New York Times, and David Brooks of the New York Times have all written interesting pieces on this here, here, and here.

According to Kaplan the appointments of Hagel and Brennan (and Sen. John Kerry to secretary of state) mean that President Obama's second term will be like first and that, "Pragmatism will reign supreme, even as there will be little appetite to take authentically risky initiatives, whether diplomatic, military or otherwise." He sees the Pentagon's emphasis as being on "…smart cost-cutting; withdrawing from a high-maintenance, low-payoff conflict in Afghanistan; and avoiding—unless absolutely necessary—a military strike against Iran." Regarding a caution toward adventure Kaplan notes that

…the legacy of the Iraq War still dominates U.S. foreign policy, and will do so throughout the duration of Obama's second term. Even if the new secretaries of state and defense are less cautious than they appear, they will steer away from anything that smells of a large-scale, boots-on-the-ground operation, unless it is within an international coalition enjoying near-global consensus.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This will be deeply unsatisfying for some, but he argues that the  

…Obama's presidency constitutes not so much leadership as a stewardship of foreign policy. That is to say, foreign policy during his administration is in safe hands, no great initiatives or schemes have been—or will be—attempted, and any threats or challenges that arise will be addressed efficiently through procedural responses. It is a foreign policy that operates much like a money market fund: offering little risk, little reward and advisable during times of extreme financial upheaval, yet it loses ground to inflation and other forces over the course of the years.

Sanger notes that the picks mean that the president has sided with Vice President Joo Biden's more restrained views on the limits of intervention and "…that caution, covert action and a modest American military footprint around the world fit the geopolitical moment." Hagel and Brennan will be, according to him, more accommodating to the running of national security policy from out of the White House. But developments in Iran, Syria, and Mali may test these assumptions. The CIA may see an increased role

[b]ecause for all the talk of demilitarizing the intelligence agency—reducing its role in conducting strikes, and going back to stealing secrets and analyzing intelligence—at the end of the day Mr. Obama's favorite way to use force is quickly, secretly and briefly.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Chuck Hagel Be Confirmed as Secretary of Defense?]

Last, Brooks offers a much different (and starker) angle than either Kaplan or Sanger. He notes that the projections for Medicare spending mean that all other government spending will need to be slashed by over 30 percent and that tax revenues will need to be increased significantly starting today to get a handle on these costs. Because any cuts in Medicare would be deeply unpopular these program cuts will mean that

As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defense will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America's stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country's biggest security threat.

Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

While such cuts will raise many questions, but the problem remains in the end one where the Congress and voters are responsible for the conundrum for wanting programs without adequately paying for them.

Kaplan, Singer, and Brooks each offer plausible explanations for the nominations of the second term foreign and defense policy team. President Obama certainly campaigned on the notion of strong domestic agenda for a second term ("nation-building at home") and the limited approach characterized by the views of Hagel, Brennan, and Kerry may theoretically allow for less large-scale international boots on the ground campaigns over the next four years while also allowing for the ramping up, or at least maintenance, of a robust "light footprint" approach toward al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but such theory, unfortunately, may often be called into question by unfolding events.

  • Read Stephen Hayes: Why Africa Is Essential to America's Future
  • Read Robert Nolan: Chuck Hagel on Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and China
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