5 Foreign-Policy Posts to Watch

By
Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 6:00 am
Flickr: Barack Obama

Flickr: Barack Obama

With much of President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet still unnamed, it’s understandable that speculation should focus on who helms the different agencies. After all, running cabinet departments is a big job, and the personalities Obama has nominated so far — New York Fed President Timothy Geithner, for instance — are politically larger than life. So are those whom Obama is expected to name, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano.

But all the focus on who will sit in Obama’s cabinet overlooks a basic fact of governance. Much, if not most, of the actual substance of policy — from its detailed conception to its experimentation to its implementation — doesn’t come from the heads of the federal agencies. It comes from deep in their guts.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

This is particularly true for national security and foreign policy. When it comes to managing foreign relations and securing the country, the middle-to-upper-middle tiers of the Departments of State, Defense and Justice, along with the National Security Council staff and the intelligence community, are often critical posts. Those positions are policy laboratories and career boosters, offices where policy is refined and offices where policy gets killed by poor implementation or bureaucratic machination. As one Democratic foreign-policy expert recently put it, “These are your foreign-policy change agents.”

Not that it will — or even should — stop speculation on the composition of Obama’s cabinet, but here are five critical sub-cabinet positions that will play an outsize role in shaping Obama’s foreign policy. For the record, the Obama transition team declined to comment about who’ll fill these jobs. But those who do eventually will have a heavy burden to shoulder.

1. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. The Iraqi government is now debating a deal with Washington that would end the foreign military presence by December 2011. But that doesn’t mean Iraq’s problems are on a reliable course to be solved by then.

Most important, there isn’t a stable national or sectarian consensus about the composition of the Iraqi government. Crucial — even existential — questions remain about how much power should be concentrated in Baghdad; whether and how the Shiite-led government could absorb tens of thousands of the mostly-Sunni militiamen known as the Sons of Iraq, and who will govern large areas in northern Iraq claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. If that isn’t enough, the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraqi governments demands that the U.S. military withdraw from cities and large towns by mid-2009 and gives the Iraqi government wide latitude over U.S. military operations.

All of which means that whomever succeeds Amb. Ryan Crocker at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad will have a task unlike any of his or her predecessors. The next ambassador has to “assess the situation accurately to let withdrawal proceed as expeditiously as possible without causing more problems than it solves,” said Daniel Serwer, a former State Dept. official who is now a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Thanks to the SOFA, the U.S.’s strategic mission in Iraq has been recast from victory to extrication. Managing withdrawal in all its dimensions — coordination with the military, with the Iraqi government, with the region and with the White House — has to be job No. 1.

“There are so many different directions this person need be superb in,” Serwer said. “Handling the military, assessing the situation in Iraq and developing good rapport with the Iraqis, see[ing] around the next corner if things are going off the rails. It’s a tremendous challenge.”

That’s especially true if the Obama administration tries to broker a pan-sectarian compact for a post-U.S. Iraq. If that’s the case, the next ambassador might look like an imperial viceroy — even as the U.S. exits the country.

2.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Low-Intensity Conflict and Interdependent Capabilities. This obscure job is as much a mouthful as it is critical. As the Pentagon’s principal outpost for irregular warfare, the directorate formerly known by the awkward acronym SO/LIC (it’s now “SO/LIC & IC” on the Pentagon org-chart) has emerged as a hotbed of unconventional thinking — much as the Office of Net Assessment was for a previous generation of tech-crazy defense wonks.

Earlier this year, one of its recent acting chiefs, Joseph Collins, published a scathing study of the Iraq war, calling it a “major debacle.” Collins was at SO/LIC & IC for the invasion, making him a rare veteran of the Rumsfeld Pentagon to publicly describe the war so harshly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the new generation of theorist-practitioners who specialize in counterinsurgency have gravitated to the office. Prominent counterinsurgents like Janine Davidson and Celeste Ward recently worked there, and the idea for an interagency network of irregular-warfare specialists grew out of their efforts. At a recent counterinsurgency conference, attendees from across the military services wanted to know whether a high-profile counterinsurgent like retired Army officer John Nagl would become its new assistant secretary or deputy assistant secretary in charge, auguring another advance by the counterinsurgents along the corridors of power.

If, as expected, scholars from the Center for a New American Security think tank make their way into Obama’s Pentagon, SO/LIC & IC would be their natural home.

3. Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel.
It’s fair to say that, until the Bush administration, few people even in Washington knew what the Office of Legal Counsel did. In normal administrations, the Justice Dept. office offers guidance about the legality of questionable or controversial policy proposals, or it helps cabinet departments and the White House clear up legal disputes.

Then President George W. Bush transformed it into a vehicle for giving a legal imprimatur to torture, indefinite detention, kidnapping and warrantless surveillance. Political appointees like John Yoo made baroque arguments claiming the presidency has inherent wartime authority to disobey cumbersome laws. Much of what the OLC did, it did in secret: memos from 2002 authorizing torture were publicly disavowed in late 2004 — only to be essentially reissued in secret by new acting OLC chief Steve Bradbury.

Since Obama has pledged to end torture and indefinite detention, his pick for OLC chief will be intensely scrutinized, as will that chief’s first series of actions. For many progressives, the OLC chief has a simple mission: rollback.

“One of the things that will have to be done very early on,” said Chris Anders, senior legislative counsel with the ACLU, should be “looking at each opinion [from the Bush-era OLC] and deciding whether it will stay in effect or be withdrawn immediately. Our view in the interrogation area is that all opinions [authorizing torture] should be withdrawn, and in its place [should be] a single opinion on what is legally permissible and impermissible in interrogation and detention — and that opinion should be made public.”

Beyond rollback, though, the OLC’s activity will be key if Obama — as expected — recasts the legal foundation for the war on terrorism. Expect an important OLC ruling to form the basis of any new attempt at creating hybrid civilian-military trials for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

4. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. Here’s a rare case where we might actually know who holds this job. If Obama asks Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense for a while longer, Eric Edelman might remain at the helm of one of the largest single Pentagon directorates. Edelman, a former ambassador to Turkey, served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney during Bush’s first term. Thus, it’s at least possible that a former braintruster of the man Vice President-elect Joseph Biden called “the most dangerous vice-president we’ve had probably in American history” might wind up on the Obama team.

Beyond that awkward situation, the undersecretary of defense for policy plays a large role in shaping national-security policy. Next year, the directorate will produce a massive document called the Quadrennial Defense Review that envisions the overall scope of U.S. military missions. The QDR, as it’s called, has huge implications for how forces train, equip themselves and prepare for the near future — meaning that it guides military spending, which currently stands at a gargantuan half-trillion dollars annually.

Outside of the QDR, the policy directorate is in charge of all Pentagon regional analysis and operational study. It works hand-in-glove with the military’s joint staff to understand and shape policy. Crucial aspects of the war on terrorism emerge from and are shaped by the policy shop — not least of which are detentions and interrogations policy.

In the Bush administration’s first term, Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith used the directorate to create an alternative intelligence-analysis agency and plan the legendarily poorly-planned occupation of Iraq. Whomever inherits the post after Edelman — or, perhaps, Edelman himself — will have a large opportunity to shape defense policy, including filling dozens of subordinate jobs.

5. Director for the Middle East on the National Security Council. One of the most critical positions in the national-security bureaucracy is also one of the least visible. Despite possessing practically no budget, the director for the Middle East at the National Security Council is responsible for coordinating the efforts of the numerous cabinet departments with Middle East-relevant portfolios to come up with a coherent policy. “It can’t do an end run around the State Dept.,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and current scholar at the Century Foundation. “You want someone who’s coordinating everyone, to get them talking off the same message box.”

It’s easier said than done. In Bush’s first term, the director, Flynt Leverett — an advocate of energetic U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and diplomatic engagement with Iran, and an opponent of invading Iraq — was almost entirely out of step with the rest of the Bush administration’s Middle East-focused officials. His successor, the neoconservative eminence and convicted Iran-Contra co-conspirator Elliott Abrams, worked vigorously to obstruct U.S. involvement in an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And the cabinet secretaries’ high profile often meant it was difficult to keep their envoys coordinated.

With Obama likely to appoint similarly prestigious officials — like Clinton at State and Gates back to Defense — the next director will face this challenge all over again, along with an even-more-complex Middle East environment.

“The job just requires an enormous amount of what’s called perspicacity,” said USIP’s Serwer with a laugh. “It’s not only Iraq, but especially Iraq, and the nuclear question with Iran. How urgent is it? Is it immediately pressing? Or do you deal with Iraq first or then Iran? Also there’s the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the smart money now is on the possibility that the next successful step will be peace with Syria.”

All this will be on the plate of the next NSC Middle East director. What he or she decides to make the top priority — setting the table for negotiations with Iran? A regional conference on the future of Iraq? Talks between Israel and Syria? — will tell a significant amount about the course of the Obama administration’s policy for the entire region.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


Comments

11 Comments

baratunde aka jack turner
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 9:20 am

Impressive amount of thought and analysis in this piece. I'm glad someone is paying attention to agency leadership beyond the headline-grabbers. Thanks


shelley
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 10:33 am

Great piece. Full of the kind of information most so-called “news agencies” are NOT providing. We need more of this and less of the gossip level drivel most groups peddle as news.


bobilore
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 11:26 am

I would love to see Wesley Clark become the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Talk about being superb on several fronts. Handling the military, being able to assess the situation politically, and being able to engage in the tough diplomacy both within the various Iraqi factions as well as between Iraq and the U.S. is what Wes Clark would do best. I can think of no better person to directly help President Obama get us gracefully and as quickly as possible out of Iraq so we can start using that $12 billion a month we're spending there here at home.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

Obama really does have to find a job for Clark, doesn't he? For the life of me I don't understand how their relationship got off to a rocky start? I kind of think Richard Holbrooke is the man for the ambassadorship to Iraq, but this is a good point.


Spencer Ackerman
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 2:31 pm

Whoa! Blogospheric hotshot in the building!


arieswym
Comment posted November 26, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

Excellent post, I wandered over here from jack & jill politics. I enjoyed your analysis and you definitely provided insight into where the work will really get done and who to look at in the Obama administration.


Tom
Comment posted November 27, 2008 @ 8:02 am

All true. But what about the Bushistas in career positions in the federal apparatus? Can they be removed or enticed out. Will they be a 'monkey wrench' in the works?


nightslider
Comment posted November 27, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

Now here's something you can wrap your brain around and learn a thing or two, great post and very informative, hope to find more of this in the future.
Clark would be a valuable addition to the team for Obama in this Position, he brings boots on the ground knowledge , toughness and flexible in negotiating.
And if it were me there would be a wholesale house cleaning in all depts removing the burrs to the saddle, cant ride when someone is irritating the flesh you have your saddle on.


licagent
Comment posted May 5, 2009 @ 10:34 am

Great . Full of the kind of information


lic agent
Comment posted May 5, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

Great . Full of the kind of information


louis vuitton
Comment posted August 6, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

I can think of no better person to directly help President Obama get us gracefully and as quickly as possible out of Iraq so we can start using that $12 billion a month we're spending there here at home.


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