Obama’s Second Term Foreign Policy Plan

Will the “pivot” continue? Who will replace Hillary Clinton or David Petraeus? Questions are mounting.

Last Tuesday’s election resulted in victory for Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.  While Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives, the Democrats gained seats in both branches of Congress in addition to holding onto the Presidency.  Victory, combined with the retirement of key staff, has given the administration tremendous autonomy for setting foreign policy in the second term. What implications do these developments have for U.S. foreign policy towards Asia?

It wont take long for the national security implications of the election to begin playing out. The "fiscal cliff," including significant tax increases and defense cuts, will come into effect next year unless the two political parties hammer out a deal to reduce the fiscal deficit. President Obama obviously comes away from the election with a stronger hand than he had before, and some prominent members of the Republican Party have begun calling for compromise. Bill Kristol, a pundit known for being more hawkish on defense than fiscal issues, argued that the GOP shouldn’t “fall on its sword” for upper class tax cuts, while Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner has called for the raucous GOP House caucus to fall in line. Given its electoral victory, the Obama administration itself may resist a deal that does not involve some of the defense cuts promised in sequestration.

With domestic political conditions developing in a manner favorable to Obama, his national security team will undergo significant change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, are all expected to leave the administration in the very near future, and the David Petraeus scandal has unexpectedly removed another key member of the national security team. The loss of talented people creates a challenge for the administration, but also gives Obama greater freedom to construct a new national security team.

While Obama’s first term foreign policy team performed relatively well, virtually all of the selections were driven by defensive, political logic. Hilary Clinton’s selection as secretary of state ensured the loyalty of the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. Robert Gates reassured the national security community of continuity in the wake of the difficult 2008 campaign.  Leon Panetta also served as reassurance, first to the CIA and then a Defense Department concerned about the prospect of cuts. David Petraeus held a commanding, if controversial, position within the national security community, making it difficult for Obama to exclude him even if he’d wanted.  Now, suddenly, Petraeus is out of the picture. 

Obama thus moves into his second term largely unburdened by the compromise foreign policy team that characterized his first. This does not necessarily make for a stronger team, but it does allow the president to focus more clearly on his foreign policy priorities. Obama still has to satisfy constituencies (some have suggested he should place a moderate Republican at the Defense Department), but with a slight Democratic majority in the Senate, which is responsible for confirming the president’s nominees, combined with the prospect of filibuster reform, it is more likely that key Obama nominees will be confirmed relatively smoothly.

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Similarly, Obama faces fewer critical burdens now than he did in 2008. The Iraq War is over, Osama bin Laden is dead, and the Afghanistan War is (for better or worse) on its way to a conclusion. While Syria and Iran continue to present challenges, they don't represent the same commitment of attention and resources as the problems the administration faced when it inherited office four years ago.

The upshot is that the Obama administration begins its second term with much greater foreign policy freedom of action, whether in domestic, strategic, or bureaucratic terms. If Obama wants to follow through on the "pivot" to Asia, he should have the freedom to do so. The first year of the second term should demonstrate how seriously Obama intends to pursue a redistribution of military and diplomatic effort towards Asia. An early indicator will be who the president taps to replace Petraeus at CIA, as well as how the administration handles sequestration. For those either anticipating or dreading a larger U.S. commitment to Asia, uncertainty shouldn't last long.