A Lack Of Focus
- By Anumita Raj
After winning the election in November
of ’08, Barack Obama set out to form the best
team to run policy in America in what was an increasingly
troubling time, both within the
country and in the rest of the world. As talk turned
to one of the highest profiles in the new cabinet,
Secretary of State, Obama achieved a coup of sorts
by recruiting Hillary Clinton, former presidential
rival and First Lady. Where people had hoped for
her to be Vice President, they felt that she would
be an even more effective Secretary of State and
lend the Obama team some much needed experience.
Cut to 7 months later, and US foreign policy seems to lack cohesiveness and the person who should be its principal architect, Ms Clinton, appears to be a rather ineffective face of the administration than a driving force. While the new administration has made a few dents and had a few small victories, its foreign policy lacks focus, a fact which is most obvious when assessing the standing of its current Secretary of State.
The biggest problem is the fact that foreign policy has become a bit of a ‘free for all’. Far too many players hold valuable cards in the game, and far too many of them seem to be contributing to constructing policy. From influential White House insiders who have the President’s ear, to experts in national security, from the President’s many special envoys to the Secretary of State and her team, from the Vice President Joe Biden to former Presidents, there seem to be too many visible and high profile individuals who have a say in creating foreign policy. While this has returned some rewards in the short term, in the long term, it is a recipe for immense conflict and trouble.
One case in recent history can be used to illustrate this point. After much back channel negotiations, the US managed to secure the release of two journalists in a North Korean prison. In order to seal the deal, former President, Bill Clinton, was sent to North Korea in secret and returned with the journalists after meeting with Kim Jong-Il. From a public relations stand point, this was a definite victory. The two journalists had garnered much attention due to their arrest and subsequent sentencing. Pictures of the journalists hugging their families while the former President looked on, earned President Obama some much needed approval ratings. However, beyond just the photo-op there are deeper issues to consider. To begin with, the Obama team essentially negotiated with the North Korean government over hostage taking. Second, by sending a former President over, they lent tacit support to North Korea. Third and most important, they derailed any attention Hillary Clinton’s efforts in Africa might have received. As President Clinton was in North Korea, Hillary Clinton had embarked on a major trip to the African continent in order to bring attention to one of her pet causes, the plight of women in the continent. Obviously, freeing the journalists was a top priority mission, but the timing could not have been worse, as the world’s press snapped into focus over the journalists, completely ignoring the efforts of Ms Clinton in Africa.
Similarly, the many special envoys of the President, in particular Richard Holbrooke, are wrestling the initiative away from the Secretary of State. Where she should be the channel through which all major decisions regarding foreign policy are made, the White House seems to be running a sort of parallel operation where all of the major policy decisions, particularly those regarding security are run by those other than Ms Clinton, those who report directly to the President. People such as General James L. Jones, the President’s NSA adviser, and Denis McDonough, Director of Strategic Communications for the NSC are known to be key advisors to the President on foreign policy matters. So too are the Vice President Joe Biden, who was chosen in part for his immense experience with foreign policy issues and Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s Chief of Staff.
All of the most effective and well remembered Secretaries of State have been known to be the key advisor on Foreign Policy, having direct access and influence over the President’s actions. Former Secretaries such as James Baker, Henry Kissinger, and George Marshall could not have been effective were they not vested with the entirety of power that ‘principal foreign policy advisor’ holds.
If the Obama administration wishes to convert a series of temporary victories into a strong and historic foreign policy that will aid the President in winning re-election come 2012, then he will have to remove many of the middle men that currently operate in matters of foreign policy, and allow Clinton more authority over issues. Obama has many lofty goals set for the next three and a half years, and in order to achieve them, he will definitely need a strong representative in the form of Secretary of State, a person whom people will be willing to sit down and talk to, because they know that he or she has the authority and the influence to get things done.