What to Expect From Obama’s New National Security Team
The new team — John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as director of the CIA — will face obvious challenges such as dealing with crises in Syria and Mali, and ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. But they will also be expected to help Obama define a new way forward for how the United States can achieve foreign policy and security goals without getting drawn into costly wars.
This troika of advisers — only Kerry has been confirmed by the Senate so far — are realists who want to keep the United States out of another major war but also will support the commander-in-chief’s disposition toward covert counterterrorism raids and drone strikes, a panel of Washington insiders said Jan. 29.
The temptation to typecast Kerry, Hagel or Brennan as pro- or anti-war should be avoided, said Doug Wilson, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Although the public tends to view the issue in black-or-white terms, that is not how national security decisions are made, Wilson said during a panel discussion at the Center for National Policy, in Washington, D.C.
In his second inaugural speech, Obama noted that a decade of war is now ending, and declared that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
The Beltway wisdom on Obama’s second term is that he will avoid military interventions. But that view is overly simplistic, said Wilson. “After the last dozen years of war, we are learning that the traditional definitions of war are giving way to very nontraditional and often unsatisfactory frameworks,” Wilson said. “There are no neat ends.”
Kerry’s mixed views on military interventions are a case in point. Although he has said he is determined to avoid another ground war, Kerry has supported military action even when Obama didn’t, said Karen DeYoung, associate editor and senior national security correspondent at The Washington Post.
“Kerry called for intervention in Libya before the administration agreed to intervene,” DeYoung said. Unlike his predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kerry believes the United States should be more deeply engaged in Pakistan, she said.
Obama's senior advisers will be walking a tightrope as they seek a viable strategy for U.S. military involvement in Mali and other African nations where al-Qaida offshoots are gaining ground.
“The challenge of al-Qaida is like whack-a-mole,” Wilson said. “They can pop up in many places.”
The difficulty for the administration will be figuring out how to secure public support for military operations “when war is not a neat thing with a final ending but still remains a necessary tool,” Wilson said.
DeYoung said there will continue to be internal disagreements in the administration over the use of military force. “You can’t underestimate the effect of Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. Obama opposed Iraq from the beginning, but he campaigned on Afghanistan being “the good war.” After Obama agreed to send more troops there, several of his advisers concluded that the White House “got bamboozled by the military” concerning Afghanistan, said DeYoung. “They sent more troops, and the war became very unpopular.”
His incoming team will be seeking a new “template” for how to exercise military power, she said. Already Obama has shown he favors special-operations raids and surgical strikes that occur out of sight from most Americans. “They are supposed to be secret so we’re not supposed to know about them,” DeYoung said. “It gives people a sense that we are not at war.”
One of the architects of Obama’s counterterrorism campaign, Brennan, is now slated to take over the CIA. He is expected to advise Obama on how to improve the training of foreign forces to fight al-Qaida and to help define the roles of special operations forces vis-à-vis the CIA. Among his priorities, DeYoung speculated, will be to get the CIA out of the killing business, and to ease the military out of spying operations. “Brennan has been uncomfortable with the transformation of the CIA from an intelligence gathering and analysis operation to a kinetic organization with its own fleet of drones and ability [in Pakistan] to make decisions on what and where to strike,” she said. “He also has been uncomfortable with the military expansion into intelligence gathering,” which overlaps with the CIA mission.
But bureaucratic infighting might have to wait. More pressing matters will demand the attention of the national security team over the coming months, such as the widespread violence in Syria, where rebels are fighting the Assad regime in a civil war that has resulted in the death of more than 60,000 civilians.
This is a tough one for the administration, Wilson said. “When it’s discussed within the military, the word that comes up is 'morass,'” he said. “It’s so complex, not easily answered.” Sending ground troops creates a “no win, no exit” problem, he said. “The tripwire will be the use of chemical weapons. This is one of the most difficult problems the U.S. military is facing now.”
DeYoung said military leaders have “less than zero interest in doing anything.” White House officials, meanwhile, have arranged for millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for Syria’s displaced civilians, but are finding that the funds are not being distributed to the needy, and the United States is not getting credit for the aid as the money is administered by groups under the supervision of the Syrian government. This is a case when political actions, rather than military intervention, might be called for, DeYoung said.
For the Defense Department, a top concern will be its declining budget. How Hagel will work with the military services to bring down spending and redefine their missions is a huge unknown, Wilson said. “There are going to be more cuts, besides the sequester,” he said. Tackling the services’ post-war roles and shrinking budgets will be one of Hagel’s “great challenges,” he said.
Both Kerry and Hagel also worry about budget cuts to the nonmilitary national security apparatus, such as the State Department. “They believe that military and nonmilitary tools work in tandem,” Wilson said. “And we have not paid enough attention to the nonmilitary tools of U.S. foreign policy.”
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.