Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Is Obama's Security Team Too Right-Wing Hawkish?

Many are now expressing dismay over President-elect Obama's choices for a security team, including Bushco's Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as being far too hawkish to give us hope for "change" when it comes to conduct of the wars and foreign policy. As this article put it,

The assembly of Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Joe Biden is a kettle of hawks with a proven track record of support for the Iraq war, militaristic interventionism, neoliberal economic policies and a worldview consistent with the foreign policy arch that stretches from George HW Bush's time in office to the present.

Although Rachel Maddow in her 12/2 Show brought out the brighter side of this, being that all the undersecretaries and lower level posts in Defense will not be Bush appointees and will be changed, and that these positions have considerable power when it comes to what goes down on the ground - this does not necessarily bode well if Obama's choices are consistently hawkish. If that's the case, it means Obama himself is leaning to the right on security. And that is something we should not be shocked about.

Even during the VERY FIRST DEBATE when all the Democratic hopefuls were given a voice, Obama stood out as pretty strong on security, a moment many in the media and the general population took as a sign of "strength" and "leadership" and, in fact, highlighted as one of the "high points" of the debate. Mike Gravel's anti-war arguments, on the other hand, were roundly castigated as "extremist".

Being as Obama always has to fight off false assumptions that he could be "extremist", "Muslim sympathizer" and "liberal" (read "peacenik") in order to have any slight hope to be elected, I'm sure that moment stuck in his mind as a tack he'd be well-advised to take.

It's also been widely reported that Obama and Robt Gates somehow hit it off, a sort of mutual respect. At the same time, there's something to be said for experience, even if that experience is under a discredited Administration. In the military, continuity is particularly essential, because one's adversary must not perceive that a change in government means a "gap" in security has been created through which that adversary could drive a wedge.

Note I said "adversary", not "enemy". Even if it wasn't a war, even if lives weren't at stake, not to mention other people's countries, even if it was just an adversarial contest, "winning" or the perception of "winning" is critical. And the perception of winning cannot be obtained if there is a simultaneous perception that one's side is undergoing some sort of upheaval. So now, if there are lives at stake, how much more important is continuity, the perception of one unified team, and that an Obama-led US will be just as strong as, if not stronger than, the Bush-led nation?

I believe that Obama's choice is reasonable and reflects his style, given that he is presenting an image to the world - an image of a strong nation, not backing down, run by someone new who nonetheless holds his alliegiance to the United States, not the world. It's easy for him to gain kudos as a more liberal, understanding and intelligent guy. What he's working hard on is gaining respect as a security-conscious, fearless, and no-pushover leader, who at the same time has more diplomacy possibilities up his sleeve, should the adversary decide the military option wasn't really working.

But one could have trepidations, nonetheless:

Karl Rove, "Bush's Brain", called Obama's cabinet selections, "reassuring", which itself is disconcerting, but neoconservative leader and former McCain campaign staffer Max Boot summed it up best. "I am gobsmacked by these appointments, most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain," Boot wrote. The appointment of General Jones and the retention of Gates at defence "all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the unconditional summits with dictators and other foolishness that once emanated from the Obama campaign."

Boot added that Hillary Clinton will be a "powerful" voice "for 'neoliberalism' which is not so different in many respects from 'neoconservativism.'" Boot's buddy, Michael Goldfarb, wrote in The Weekly Standard, the official organ of the neoconservative movement, that he sees "certainly nothing that represents a drastic change in how Washington does business. The expectation is that Obama is set to continue the course set by Bush in his second term."

Was Obama's voice for peace and change and hope just an image to gain votes? Somehow, I refuse to believe that.

But we really need to see how all these hawkish appointments play out in the conduct of foreign policy. Rahm Emanuel's hawkish-on-Israel stance and Biden's I-am-a-Zionist stance does NOT bring cause for hope to Palestinians, for example. Let's hope what I believe to be Obama's core compassionate streak overpowers his big guns in places like Darfur, Somalia, and Burma, as well as Palestine.

Others have said,
Obama's familiar-looking team of national security fixer-uppers does not inspire confidence. Nor do his vague answers to detailed questions on specific policies. "We're going to have to bring the full force of our power, not only military but also diplomatic, economic and political, to deal with those threats not only to keep America safe, but also to ensure that peace and prosperity will exist around the world," he told reporters. Obama seems to think he can wish away the world's evils with his eloquence and charm.

With a "strong" team, it doesn't seem that he is "wishing away the world's evils". I think it's more like a tour de force to show the world he's no wimp. From that position of strength, we hope to see the other "diplomatic, economic and political" efforts coming into play. It's too soon to say what will actually happen.

We don't want all this hope to just fall flat...do we? After all, the strongest security comes from diplomacy, NOT guns. Let'e hope Obama puts this team on the path of intelligent diplomacy, not "intelligence"-engendered war-mongering.


Brian Krenz said...

The picks don't bother me. I think you're right that he wants to look strong. He also wants competence, and this team is competent.

Incompetence may have been the most damaging aspect of the Bush administration (that or apathy). So even if Obama's team is a little more hawkish than I would like, the fact that they're not just bumbling idiots is a nice change of pace.

Not that this alone is enough. But it's Obama who will make the decisions, not Gates and co. He wants different viewpoints so he can make the best decision possible, not because he's committed to taking a more hawkish approach.

Good post.

Omyma said...

Yes, I tend to agree with you on this. Thanks for your comment.

opit said...

The Bush (mal)administration would have been hard to improve on if one wanted to completely destroy any remnants of so-called 'liberalism' (moderate centrism is still painting the Democratic party farther 'left' than it is).
The 'America Against the World' meme from the weapons makers is intact.

Omyma said...

Great point about "The 'America Against the World' meme from the weapons makers is intact."

However, I get the sense that Obama wants to change that. In my view, this is one of the most important things he SHOULD change. We'll see if he can round up this team to change the whole vision.

Re liberalism: defining "liberal" and "conservative" often strikes me as strangely arbitrary. Even the media calls the "majority" of Americans "center-right" in a sort of hat-tip to the discredited Republicans. I think a pragmatic approach rather than ideological is in order, and it appears - we hope! - Obama will be up for that.

But he does have, as you mentioned, a creeping "America v. World" tendency...