I haven’t blogged much at all about likely foreign-policy trajectory of the Obama administration, because I still believe that, until we know how the sub-cabinet positions are sorted out and the precise role Obama has in mind for the National Security Council vis-à-vis the State Department and the Pentagon, etc. (that is, how much control the White House will exert over the policy-making process and how much time Obama himself will be able to devote to it, given the ongoing financial crisis and his domestic agenda), all of the speculation remains premature. Of course, a growing number of people on the the left, or “Liberals,” as the New York Times put it Tuesday, are expressing great worry about the implications of the appointments so far – focusing on the fact that all of the heavy-duty cabinet appointments, unlike Obama, did not publicly object to the Iraq War and have spoken out in one way or another against a strict timetable for withdrawal, among other things. (For some reason, they exempt Susan Rice from their critique, but, based on her work on Africa under Bill Clinton, I don’t see her as ideologically very different from Hillary, although it’s clear that the two of them are not the best of friends. Rice was one of the few to see a silver lining in Bolton’s appointment to the UN back in 2005!) The same forces have also been somewhat freaked out by the generally positive reviews given the picks by prominent neo-cons; among them, Richard Perle (although Perle’s was awfully nuanced, noting, correctly in my opinion, the likely continuity between Bush’s second term and the incoming administration), Mona Charen, Max Boot, and David Brooks.
A useful perspective was published by the reliably hard-line neo-con columnist of the “Wall Street Journal,” Bret Stephens Tuesday. I think it’s a rather good analysis (entitled “Obama’s Team of Conformists,” and correctly, if unhappily, points out that, at least in the initial phases, the Obama administration will build on Bush II and restore the realist-liberal internationalist consensus that, until 9/11 and with the exception of Reagan’s first term, has dominated U.S. foreign policy since the onset of the Cold War. What is particularly interesting about the column is that it is that it is perhaps the first notable example of a frontal attack by a prominent neo-con on Robert Gates whose influence, I believe, was much more important in bending Bush II in a more realist direction in the last two years than that of Condi Rice, who, until now, has been the favored whipping boy (or girl) of neo-cons like Perle and Bill Kristol’s ‘Weekly Standard’ disgusted by Bush’s many second-term appeasements.
Of course, for neo-cons like Stephens, the big issue is what the incoming administration is going to do about Israel, and particularly the Israeli-Palestinians track, the ripeness of which is the subject of considerable debate within the Obama camp, with one group arguing, a la Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Aaron Miller, that there’s no chance of an imminent breakthrough there and that a peace agreement with Syria is far more promising and yields many more strategic benefits vis-à-vis Iran; and the other group, a la Brzezinski and Scowcroft, arguing for an all-out effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front, perhaps within the context of the revived 2002 Arab League Peace Proposal. Just the fact that a serious peace effort along one or both tracks is clearly a top priority gives neo-cons like Stephens the willies, but I found it very interesting that his concerns about Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. Jones, revolves around the contents of his never-released report (said to be harshly critical of Israel) about improving security conditions between Israel and the Palestinians. According to The Forward’s Nathan Guttman, Jones proposed that overall responsibility for security in the West Bank be transferred from Israel to a NATO force in the period between the time an agreement is reached on borders and Palestinian forces were ready to take control – an idea that Scowcroft has been pushing for some five years now. The notion that an international force would guarantee security is anathema to the Israeli right and its neo-con backers here.
As I’ve written before, who gets what is going to be highly indicative. If Dennis Ross (or Indyk) gets a big appointment – as overall Mideast special envoy or as special envoy to Iran – neo-cons, are going to be very, very relieved, and they’re won’t be a great deal to look forward to in that par of the world. If someone more in the Brzezinski/Scowcroft mode, someone who may be willing to exert actual pressure on an Israeli government to make the “tough decisions” its leaders often talk about, that will be something else.
(For a rather cynical and pessimistic view on this question, see Col. Pat Lang’s post on the subject from last week. While I agree in general with his analysis, I think his notion of “Zionists” is a bit broad. Groups like Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum are both Zionist may favor a “one-sided” solution to the conflict, but their notion of a solution – and their explicit appeals for U.S. pressure on Israel – is far more even-handed than those groups that are routinely and mistakenly called “pro-Israel.”)
Of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran are just a couple of the big, big foreign-policy issues that will confront Obama Jan 20. We’re still more than a month and many, many appointments away.