Team Obama - can rivals play and win?

Business Times - 03 Dec 2008

Conflicts between his foreign policy stars could delay the changes he has promised


SCIENTISTS who study the way our brain processes images describe a condition known as visual agnosia, or the lack of visual knowledge, when one can observe an object through normal visual acuity but cannot make a meaningful perception from this sensation.

It seems that when the visual region of a person's brain is partially damaged, he or she can produce a faithful rendering of an illustration but have no idea what it is. One 'sees' but does not 'know'.

But even if your brain has not been injured recently, you may have experienced a form of visual agnosia when you were watching US President-elect Barack Obama unveiling his national security team.

It was not very difficult to see that Mr Obama has nominated Senator Hillary Clinton, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as his secretary of state, and that he retained Robert Gates as defence secretary, selected retired Marine general James Jones as his national security adviser and named his top foreign policy adviser Susan Rice as his ambassador to the United Nations.

You could observe these men and women who would be managing US global policy in the next four years. The problem was that you could not make a meaningful assessment of that image. What did it really mean?

The answer to this question depends very much on what you want it to mean. Hence foreign policy 'realists' who have been very critical of the 'idealist' neoconservative dogma of promoting the so-called Freedom Agenda in the Middle East that was pursued by President George W Bush until late 2006, probably concluded that the Obama administration would be embracing a non-ideological and pragmatic approach in dealing with the foreign policy challenges facing the United States.

The realists will tell you that the US, under Mr Obama and the new team, is going to work together with other powers to adjust US foreign policy to the changing global realities.

From that perspective, the make-up of Mr Obama's team is a sign that the next president wants to follow in the foreign policy footsteps of Republican president George H W Bush and Democratic president Bill Clinton who promoted US national interests by working through multilateral institutions, refrained from launching global ideological crusades and believed that military force should only be used as the last resort.

Hence, if Mrs Clinton is a natural successor to her husband's sensible 'Clintonism', Mr Gates is a member of the Realpolitik wing of the Republican Party represented by Brent Scowcroft, a harsh critic of the Iraq war and the neoconservative agenda and a close adviser to President Bush the First. Mr Scowcroft and the other Realpolitik types want to repair US position in the Middle East by extracting the US out of Iraq, opening a diplomatic dialogue with Iran and re-energising the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

At the same time, these realists place a special emphasis on the need to continue US diplomatic and economic engagement with China as a central component of US global policy.

Mr Gates, who had replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, as well as Gen Jones could provide Mr Obama with the support he needs from the foreign policy and military establishments in order to start withdrawing US troops from Iraq and start dealing with Iran, while managing the continuing war in Afghanistan in the context of the explosive situation in South Asia.

Mrs Clinton who, like her husband and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, is regarded as a strong supporter of Israel, could play a crucial role in allaying the fears of the Jewish state and its supporters in Washington as the Obama administration reassesses US policy in the Middle East.

But then much of these expectations are based on what the realists perceive when they observe Mr Obama's foreign policy team - a pragmatic and multilateralist approach to diplomacy and national security.

But what if this sense of optimism reflects the realists' form of visual agnosia and in particular their failure to perceive the potential problems posed by the make-up of the foreign policy team?

Mrs Clinton is a national and global celebrity with an independent political base and personal ambitions that do not necessarily match Mr Obama's. Unlike Mr Obama, she supported the decision to oust Saddam Hussein and is in general more hawkish than the President-elect on several foreign policy issues.

What would happen if, for example, she decides to challenge a possible American diplomatic opening to Iran or advocate a tough approach towards Russia? Will she be a trusted team member or will she try to promote her own agenda through leaks to the media?

And then there is a potential for major disagreements between Ms Rice, a strong advocate of 'humanitarian intervention' by the US to end civil wars and prevent genocide in Africa and other troubled spots around the world, and Mr Gates and Gen Jones, who tend to be more sceptical about the use of American military force for dealing with humanitarian problems as opposed to protecting concrete US national interests.

Mr Obama could find himself drawn into a series of political and bureaucratic conflicts between his foreign policy stars that could delay the changes he promised during the campaign, not to mention the possible confusion among America's allies and rivals who could be wondering who exactly is in charge of US foreign policy.

Mr Obama has insisted that while he welcomes an occasional debate among his foreign policy advisers, he will be the one who will be responsible for keeping his team in line and on the same page and making the final decision on issues such as withdrawing troops from Iraq or negotiating with Iran.

Admirers of the President-elect suggest that his willingness to choose a foreign policy team that consists of strong personalities with a variety of past experiences and divergent points of view conveys that he has the self-confidence and intelligence to tolerate dissent and master disagreements.

Compare that attitude to the kind of 'groupthink' that dominated the foreign policy making during the Bush administration when no one was willing to challenge the dogmatic positions on Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Israel/Palestine that were advanced by Vice-President Dick Cheney and embraced by Mr Bush the Decider.

And when former secretary of state Colin Powell did dare to raise some doubts about these policies, he was forced to resign.

In fact, some observers have compared Mr Obama's style of foreign policy decision-making to that of another former Senator from Illinois, president Abraham Lincoln who, as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin chronicled in her book A Team of Rivals, brought into his Cabinet former presidential rivals who ended up helping him win a long and bloody civil war.

Interestingly enough, one of those rivals was William Henry Seward, Lincoln's opponent during the presidential race - who happened to be a Senator from New York who was invited to join his Cabinet as secretary of state.

It is quite possible that Mr Obama will also lead a winning Team of Rivals. But then, recall that when Mr George W Bush selected his foreign policy team, observers hailed the choice he had made of bringing together the best and the brightest among the members of the foreign policy establishment aka The Vulcans - Mr Cheney, Mr Rumsfeld, Mr Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz - strong personalities, vast experience, great minds, who were also considered to be non-ideological and pragmatic foreign policy realists.

That, at least, was the assessment that many made as they watched Mr Bush introduce his foreign policy team. Another example of visual agnosia?

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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