The Clinton-Gates Tandem and U.S. Foreign Policy


Rumors spread over Washington, DC some time ago that Hillary Clinton may leave her job as Secretary of State. And although a White House spokesman promptly jumped in to claim that the president was very happy with Clinton in her current position, the occasion allowed observers to take another look at the role Clinton plays in defining U.S. foreign policy and also at her place on the Obama’s foreign policy team.

In most countries, the term “foreign policy” is closely associated with “diplomacy.” Consequently, the country’s foreign policy is in charge of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, in the U.S. with its emphasis on using military force to achieve foreign policy objectives, foreign policy is most often synonymous with “national security.” As a result, the coordination of U.S. foreign policy became the prerogative of the National Security Council, and the role of a foreign policy “quarterback” is assumed by a Cabinet member enjoying the trust of the president. In the Nixon administration, such a person was national Security Advisor and then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In the Carter administration, this role was played by the National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who completely overshadowed the then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. During George W. Bush’s first term, an extraordinary influence in foreign affairs was exercised by Vice President Dick Cheney. Neither Secretary of State Colin Powell, nor the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice could compete with Cheney for the attention of president Bush.

The situation in Obama’s foreign policy team is different. To begin with, appointing Clinton as secretary of State has not been Obama’s own decision; this decision was forced on him by others. Obama and Clinton fought a tough primary battle to become the Democratic nominee for the 2008 presidential election. This battle often turned personal, so that at the end of the primaries, there was not much love left between the two. This was one of the reasons why despite a pressure from the Democratic Party leadership, Obama refused to make Clinton his Vice-Presidential running mate. (The other reason was reportedly a tough stance taken by Obama’s wife, Michelle, who objected to having Clinton working in the White House). However, after the election, Obama was told that to avoid a potentially damaging rift within the Democratic Party, he had to offer Clinton a position in his administration that would fit Clinton’s statue. The position of Secretary of State, the forth in state ranking (after the president, vice president, and speaker of the House) has been a natural choice.

Nevertheless, sources close to Clinton keep insisting that when offering her the Department of State in the fall of 2008 Obama promised that she will play pivotal role in defining U.S. foreign policy. Obama reportedly said that he wanted to focus on collapsing economy and he therefore needed someone of Clinton’s caliber to present the United States to the rest of the world. However, pretty soon it became clear that unlike his predecessors, Obama preferred to make all important foreign policy decisions himself. (As one of his aids put it: “In the Obama administration, Henry Kissinger is Obama himself”). The only thing that Clinton needed to do was to follow orders coming out of the White House.

Even having made Clinton Secretary of State, Obama continued to rely on the narrow circle of his personal advisors. The most influential, and yet surprisingly least known to the public, are Dennis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. Both have worked with Obama since his times as Senator from Illinois. Having become president, Obama brought them to Washington and placed to modest positions in the White House: McDonough as Chief of Staff at the National Security Council, and Rhodes as the third deputy to General James Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor. Both McDonough and Rhodes came to Obama from the staff of former congressman Lee Hamilton considered in Washington as one of the most prominent supporters of “pragmatic” (as opposed to ideological) approach to international relations.

In contrast, Clinton has always been known as a proponent of a “muscular” approach to foreign policy, readily backed up by military force. She inherited these views from her mentor and a friend Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the administration of Hillary’s husband Bill. Clinton would never miss a chance of flashing her hawkish credentials. She is the only high-ranking member of the administration who regularly brings up the topic of “human rights violation” in other countries. It was on her insistence (and despite Beijing’s energetic protests) that Obama hosted Dalai-lama in the White House.

Clinton has a close ally in the Cabinet: Secretary of Defense (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates whom Obama inherited from the previous administration. Their “friendship” is a classic example of political symbiosis: Clinton helped Republican Gates not to feel isolated in the Democratic administration, whereas Gates supported Clinton in her tug of war with the White House. Besides, both share passion for aggressive foreign policy. Over the time, the Clinton-Gates tandem has evolved into a powerful center of influence successfully challenging opinions of the president and his advisors. (The two other influential members of Obama’s foreign policy team, Vice President Joe Biden and the National Security Advisor Jones could be placed somewhere “in the middle”).

The discord broke into the open last fall, when Obama asked his foreign policy team to come up with a new strategy for Afghanistan. Former Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, prepared a memo asking for additional 80,000 troops. McChrystal was energetically supported by Gates. Clinton sided with McChrystal and Gates, even though her direct report, U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, Carl Eikenberry (himself former general who fought in Afghanistan) disagreed with such a massive troop surge. Joe Biden also spoke against, but Obama overruled him and made a decision to send additional 30,000 troops.

The troop surge in Afghanistan was the first serious victory for the Clinton-Gates tandem. But then, there were others. With the active support from Gates, Clinton has pushed through a new round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran, even though Obama tried to engage Teheran into bilateral talks. Finally, in the mid of May, the White House made a decision to renew efforts towards modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon, led by Gates, actively lobbied this decision. When Gates appeared at a Senate hearing to discuss the issue, he was accompanied by Clinton.

As Obama’s difficulties with his domestic agenda keep mounting, more and more often key foreign policy decisions are made by the Clinton-Gates tandem. As a result, the differences between Obama’s foreign policy and that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, become less and less visible. Some say that they don’t already exist. There are rumors that Gates will soon retire, and Clinton will take his place. No doubt that the military industrial complex currently represented by Gates will enthusiastically support this change. Clinton herself seems to like this idea too, and her confidants are already testing waters in Washington. And why not? First in the history of the United States female Secretary of Defense!

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation

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