The Realist Prism: Obama’s Appointments Offer New Paths for Power Projection

Back in January, writing in these pages, I wondered whether the appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense heralded "the third installment of President Barack Obama’s approach to national security," an Obama Doctrine 3.0 characterized by "retrenchment and rebuilding" rather than intervention. Kerry and Hagel seemed to complement National Security Adviser Tom Donilon's perspective on foreign affairs; Steve Clemons, back in 2010, had described Donilon as a "realist" and as a "skeptic of many of the military's grand schemes in which large resources are given [and] big promises made."

Obama's decision this week to appoint U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as his national security adviser (NSA) and to nominate Samantha Power as Rice's replacement in New York suggests a partial reversal of that approach, an Obama Doctrine 2.5. At first glance the new team seems to bring a greater willingness to test the waters for a more interventionist approach, but one tempered by a skepticism about recent interventions, suggesting that the president may be interested in striking a new balance between the realist and idealist approaches to U.S. national security. It also brings to a close a short-lived "unity" among the principals that has been reflected in the unwillingness of the administration to countenance more direct U.S. involvement in Syria.

A re-creation of a "team of rivals" approach, where there can be deep and meaningful differences of opinion among the senior members of the national security team argued out even in front of the president, seems to suit Obama better than the "Gang of Eight" approach that characterized the George H.W. Bush administration, where there was a general consensus and where, in the words of former Secretary of State James Baker, meetings were held with an eye to making sure that the team was "singing from the same hymnal." Obama’s approach allows the president to preserve his freedom of movement on any given issue, and, as we have seen in a variety of key decisions—from the Afghan surge to the Libya intervention—divisions among the principals meant that Obama personally retained control of the decision-making process.

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