Obama, LBJ and Nixon

Dave Dilegge at the Small Wars Journal blog put together a useful overview of reaction to Obama’s national security team. I think Laura Rozen nailed it, too, when she described the event and the team as “sober.” Add an “m” and you’ve got the mood that will probably apply come Jan. 20, when the gang starts realizing the task they’re up against.

I want to avoid getting too deep into the “rotisserie league” diplomacy game. There’s no real way to predict how all the parts will ultimately fit together once they are in motion. And to paraphrase the wartime cliche a bit, events get a say, too.

But two things strike me as most significant about this team on paper, as revealed by Dilegge’s roundup. First, when a Democratic president-elect — who this time last month was being accused of being at best a patsy and at worst a Socialist mole — gets Max Boot and Jennifer Rubin on board for his national security team, he’s very clearly secured himself a lot of bona fides, and therefore room to maneuver in terms of actually applying his policy.

Second, there’s a very clear expectation among the domestic “left” that very real changes are going to take place under the surface, in terms of a “sea change” shift of resources that will essentially return foreign policy to the civilian sphere. Now, this is something I’ve been advocating for a while now, andgiven Defense Sec. Bob Gates public remarks on the subject, theelements are definitely in place for that kind of shift.

In fact, I think that the success or failure of Obama’s foreign policy will ultimately be judged on the degree to which he accomplishes this, but also, significantly, to what end he ultimately directs it. After all, as this recent WaPo article points out, U.S. aid and development have essentially become accessories to stabilization and reconstruction operations. But given the global situation that Obama is inheriting, American resources — whether civilian or military — are very likely going to remain committed to achieving primarily national security goals. So the question isn’t only one of allocations, but of defining what secures American interests. Which well do we sink? The one in Afghanistan, to get people to stop shooting at us? Or the one in Congo, to get people to stop shooting at each other? The answer, at least for time being, seems obvious.

So I don’t know how realistic these expectations are. With all the historic comparisons between Obama and FDR, JFK, Reagan, Bush I and Jimmy Carter, I think M.K. Bhadrakumar put his finger on the essential comparison in his WPR feature: LBJ. The real question for Obama’s foreign policy/national security legacy is whether he ends up drawn deeper into the quagmires of his predecessor until he ultimately sacrifices his presidency to them, or whether he finds a way out to ultimately pursue the broader engagements he seems inclined to and uniquely qualified for. In other words, a (hopefully) sanitized version of Nixon.