Shadow Government

Should Obama listen to the conventional wisdom in choosing his national security team?

President Obama seems to have two options in assigning the top three national security spots (Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor): follow the conventional beltway wisdom or go his own way and do what he thinks is best.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama should pick a Democratic "dream team." That would put Senator Kerry in the Secretary of State slot. He is the Democratic Party's acknowledged congressional leader on foreign policy and would be a shoo-in to be confirmed. He has certainly earned the president's favor, having rescued the administration from some tricky foreign policy predicaments, and he clearly wants the job. The Obama political operation appears willing to risk the Democratic Senate seat in the by-election to replace him. He will not have the celebrity star power that Hilary Clinton had, but there is no one (except her husband -- or perhaps Colin Powell) who could come close to matching that anyway, and Kerry probably is the biggest name available. Secretary Clinton's most important contribution to foreign policy in the past four years has been this high profile "face of America" role -- certainly she had a bigger impact in that role than in shaping key policy debates inside the interagency -- and so seasoned foreign policy hands recognize the importance of making a high-stature appointment.

For Defense, the conventional wisdom is that either of the top two underlings from the first term -- current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or former UnderSecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy -- would be strong picks. Neither would face a contentious confirmation fight or a steep learning curve. Both enjoy bipartisan respect and would be as capable in selling Obama's controversial defense cuts as anyone he could pick. Both would be trusted to do the best that could be done to mitigate the damage those cuts risk doing to national security.

That leaves Susan Rice looking for a spot to land, and the conventional wisdom is that she would make a fine National Security Advisor. She clearly has the trust of the president, which is the single most important criterion for success, and she would be seen as an equal by the other principals (another important criterion). This is also a non-confirmable post, so the Benghazi unpleasantness would pose no hurdle. There is the awkwardness that the job is currently filled by someone who wants to stay, Tom Donilon, but the conventional wisdom is that it would be no bad thing for President Obama to start the second term with a clean slate. Indeed, as one Obama insider put it, an "intervention" may be needed to repair the dysfunctions of the first term. The president could also consider many other worthy names for spots on the "dream team " that were also in circulation four years ago -- Richard Danzig, John Hamre, Jim Steinberg, to name just a few -- but they all have in common this "clean slate" feel.

The trial balloons floating out of the White House suggest that President Obama doesn't agree with the conventional wisdom. It appears he wants to put Susan Rice at State -- never mind that some Senators seem willing to serve the sauce for Rice's goose that she merrily served to their gander over the years. Even some Democratic voices have raised doubts (here and here) about whether Rice is a good fit at State.

And if Rice is at State, what to do with the loyal Kerry? The consolation prize appears to be Defense -- never mind the doubts that a Senate office is the wrong training ground for managing such an unwieldy bureaucracy. Or perhaps Kerry would be left at the altar altogether, which would mean that Obama's rocky relations with Congress would have one more unhappy boulder to contend with.

And if Rice is at State, that means Donilon is likely to stay as National Security Advisor, which leaves the slate uncleaned.

When facing similar choices in the past, Obama has tended to follow his own lead and ignore the conventional wisdom and so I guess the best bet is that he will do so again. But sometimes the conventional wisdom has a certain, well, wisdom to it.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Post-game analysis of the Obama Asia trip

In Bangkok on November 18 President Obama explained that it was "no accident" that he chose Asia for his first overseas trip after winning re-election. Well, actually, it was. The East Asia Summit, which the president attended in Phnom Penh just before Thanksgiving, had been on the calendar for some time. That it happened to fall on a date just after the U.S. election was perhaps propitious, but it was not because of presidential design. 

The president's hyperbole in Bangkok is somewhat typical of the rhetoric surrounding the "pivot" to Asia. This same hyperbole caused trouble with European and Middle East allies, who did not want to be pivoted away from, and with China, which did not understand why the president was claiming credit for a series of seemingly minor but somehow nefariously connected defense decisions like transferring a few thousand Marines from Okinawa to Darwin, Australia.

Hyperbole aside, though, the president can claim credit for something quite substantive with this trip: He has now established that future American presidents will regularly attend two annual summits in Asia each year, once for APEC and once for the ASEAN-centered East Asia Summit.  Clinton, meanwhile, has become the first secretary of state to score a perfect attendance record at the ASEAN Regional Forum of foreign ministers. While these meetings can appear dreadfully boring on the surface, they are becoming intensely important behind the scenes as Beijing attempts to assert its own agenda on the region. When the United States is there, the smaller countries usually take heart. In Phnom Penh, China pressured the Cambodian hosts to cut-off discussions on the South China Sea, but with the American president watching, the Philippines and other countries continued raising their legitimate concerns about Beijing's heavy-handed approach to the region's territorial disputes. Woody Allen argued that 9/10ths of success in life is just showing up -- an appropriate maxim for U.S. diplomacy in Asia and one Obama and Clinton have followed.

The president also did fairly well in Burma and Cambodia, two countries with deeply troubling human rights records. I was worried that he would downplay these concerns and instead focus on switching two erstwhile Chinese proxies over to the U.S. camp to score PR points for the pivot. The administration had already moved too fast in lifting the import ban on Burma, which only helped the crony-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise. However, a White House blog on Burma policy by NSC Senior Director Samantha Powers just before the trip laid out a more balanced approach going forward that would praise President Thein Sein for his reforms, and be clear that further U.S. support depended on the heavy lifting that still remains. The president appears to have done just that (though he somehow managed repeatedly to garble Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's name, which she took stoically as always). He also did not shrink from pressing Hun Sen to halt systematic repression and violence against civil society groups and the democratic opposition in Cambodia. These were encouraging moves, given how detached the pivot has been thus far from historic American foreign policy values.

That said, the president's trip did little to answer three big questions troubling American friends and allies in Asia. First, will the fiscal cliff undercut the economic basis of American power in the Pacific or end up in defense cuts that have an equally deleterious impact on regional security?  Second, will the administration move beyond its unambitious approach to trade now that the election is over and inject some energy into the Trans-Pacific Partnership? And third, will the United States go wobbly on China after the balance-of-power conscious Hillary Clinton leaves office? It is no accident our friends are asking these questions.