Robert Gates Uncertainty Principle

Sorry to keep writing about this topic, but it comes up too frequently:

The most likely Republican for a top Obama post, based on published speculation and reporting within his transition team this weekend, is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who might keep his job in at least the opening phase of the new administration. Obama has said foreign policy is the area most in need of more bipartisanship, and the likely appointment of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) leaves few other openings.

A Gates reappointment would send a message of caution and continuity within national security circles — not exactly the message that Obama’s most ardent anti-Iraq war supporters are yearning for.

The reappointment of Gates would be neither tokenism nor a message of “caution and continuity,” at least not with respect to the Bush Administration’s neoconservative ideology. Gates is closely associated with Brent Scowcroft, a notable critic of George W. Bush, an informal Obama adviser, and former national security adviser under Bush I. Matt Yglesias is right to note that cooperation with Republican realists actually counters some of the views advanced by Hillary Clinton during the primary. There’s been a lot of talk of the disappointment of these suspiciously unsourced “anti-Iraq war supporters” (by the way, wouldn’t a better way to say that be “Iraq war critics”?) have been disgruntled about the Clinton pick (rightly, to a degree), so if they are also disgruntled about the apparent Gates nod, they don’t know what they are talking about. But wait, this is Jonathan Martin we’re talking about, so more illogic can’t be far around the corner…

But it would hardly signal a dramatically new style of partisan bridge-building. For one, Gates is not a sharply partisan figure. Before becoming president of Texas A&M, he was a lifelong national security official, spending most of his career in the CIA and heading the spy agency under the first President George Bush. For another, he almost certainly would be a transition figure, rather than one expected by the public or colleagues to stay put or be a decisive policymaking voice for a full term.

Nor would there be novelty in Obama reaching to a moderate figure from the opposition party to lead the Pentagon. That was exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1997 when he tapped then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) to be his second-term defense secretary.

So let me get this straight, Gates is a moderate, so picking him as Secretary of Defense wouldn’t signal bipartisanship, but at the same time, he’s not a moderate figure from the opposition party that can serve as a token? And war critics have been disappointed in the Clinton pick because she has been a Liberal Hawk, and yet, they’re also disappointed that someone from the Realist camp will serve as a Defense Secretary?

When did Politico start applying quantum mechanics to political appointments? (And on a somewhat related and completely immature note…lawlz. Sorry, mom).

Endless Clinton Blogging

Matt Yglesias does a good job summarizing the differences between Hillary and Obama’s foreign policies as outlined during the primaries.

As Matt notes, Clinton is to the right — slightly — on a number of issues, but I think a lot of this was forced upon her out of necessity. Since she supported the war from the outset, it would make sense that she would draw distinctions from the right. Of course, it’s possible she really does espouse a foreign policy to the right of Obama because she independetly came to such conclusions, but ceteris parabus I would bet she and Obama would have found comity more often than they did. More importantly though, I think that as the center has shifted, so will have Hillary. Indeed, CNAS, the think tank from which Hillary drew most of her foreign policy expertise, has shifted more towards the perspective elucidated by Obama.

All this said, I’m still not particularly jazzed about the idea of filling the State Department with a number of the same foreign policy hands who were wrong on Iraq and have had a proclivity for playing within the neoconservative framework. I just don’t think it will in reality be serious shift to the center-right that people have speculated.

Darfur

I was just subjecting myself to the Chinese water torture that is watching Hardball, and Chris Matthews, David Corn, and Jill Zuckman were discussing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. As Chris Matthews is wont to promote, the discussion mostly centered on the politics of the choice, shying away from serious policy concerns, and I know this because Darfur was a larger part of the discussion than Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and peace in the Middle East.

Look, I don’t want appear insensitive, and there are some truly horrible things happening in Darfur, but this just won’t be an area of serious foreign policy focus. If there’s one thing Bush’s neoconservatism has taught us it’s that the scope of American power simply isn’t what we thought it was. As is, we’re stretched thin in Iraq and have yet to really deal with a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Diplomatically, there’s of course the issue of Iran, the Middle East, and just generally assuaging our allies of our good intent. Simply put, problems in these regions directly relate to our national security and (unfortunately) economy so that’s where our resources will and should be deployed. If anything happens with Darfur, it’s going to be a largely international effort (which won’t be easy in the UN — NATO is more likely) and the absolute soonest we might expect a substantial effort would be some time during an Obama second term.

In an ideal world, we’d have the resources and international support to intervene, but realistically, it’s just not high on the agenda.

Timing

Literally one minute after posting on my reservations on Clinton as Secretary of State, I get the New York Times Alert, “Clinton to Accept Secretary of State Nomination, Confidants Say.” Not that this was unexpected, but I guess still a bit disappointing.

Down There Problems

One thing I failed to consider when evaluating Hillary as Secretary of State were the potential implications for lower-tier, but very important jobs. Spencer Ackerman explains.

“Basically, you have all of these young, next-generation and mid-career people who took a chance on Obama” during the primaries, said one Democratic foreign-policy expert included in that cohort. “They were many times the ones who were courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many of them supported Obama in the first place. And many of them would likely get shut out of the mid-career and assistant-secretary type jobs that you need, so that they can one day be the top people running a future Democratic administration.”

In the foreign-policy bureaucracy, these middle-tier jobs — assistant secretary and principal-deputy-assistant and deputy-assistant — are stepping stones to bigger, more important jobs, because they’re where much of the actual policy-making is hashed out. Those positions flesh out strategic decisions made by the president and cabinet secretaries; implement those policies; and use their expertise to both inform decisions and propose targeted or specific solutions to particular crises.

More from Matt Yglesias here and Greg Sargent here. Though it’s clear Obama would dictate the larger direction of foreign policy, I think these concerns are at least somewhat legitimate. Much of the impetus for invading Iraq came from ideological hard-ons like Doug Feith (who was in the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy for W.), so it really is quite important insofar as a general ideological inclination can inform the tendencies of a given Department.

Non-Shifts

An article in the LA Times discusses the dyspeptic reaction antiwar groups are having to some of the talk about Obama’s cabinet possibilities.

The activists are uneasy not only about signs that both Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates could be in the Obama Cabinet, but at reports suggesting that several other short-list candidates for top security posts backed the decision to go to war.

“Obama ran his campaign around the idea the war was not legitimate, but it sends a very different message when you bring in people who supported the war from the beginning,” said Kelly Dougherty, executive director of the 54-chapter Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The activists — key members of the coalition that propelled Obama to the White House — fear he is drifting from the antiwar moorings of his once-longshot presidential candidacy. Obama has eased the rigid timetable he had set for withdrawing troops from Iraq, and he appears to be leaning toward the center in his candidates to fill key national security posts.

While first pointing out that this too was my reaction to the idea of Hillary taking State, we’re past the stage of “sending signals.” That is, Obama now has the capacity to dictate the terms of his foreign policy, so it doesn’t particularly matter how HRC or Gates felt about the war in 2002 insofar as it will inform the Obama Administrations policies in the future. What’s more, Obama was never really an “antiwar” candidate as much he was against the War in Iraq. He has spoken frequently about the need to shift troops toward Afghanistan and his foreign policy seems to hew to the realist tradition, which is far cry from pacificism. Obama’s potential selection of HRC for State (or even the talk of Dick Lugar) doesn’t signify a shift to the center, it simply stems from the fact that Obama’s foreign policy, at present, is a fairly centrist position. After all, were we to revote on the AUMF, it would be reasonable to expect that a vote against the war would be the center position.

It’s A Trap?

Something I failed to realize yesterday about offering Secretary of State to Hillary Clinton is that it’s essentially a win-win for Obama. If Hillary takes the position, she’ll essentially be complicit in her political marginalization (at least to the degree a Clinton can be politically marginalized). If she doesn’t take the position, Obama will have extended the olive branch (though I seriously doubt there was a need to make such a gesture) and Clinton runs the risk of appearing ungracious and discrediting in advance any meddling she may pursue in the Senate.

As I’ve mentioned before, it would seem unlikely to me that Clinton accepts (indeed, the vetting process alone might be enough to discourage her). A better way of sequestering her might be a SCOTUS appointment.