The Obama administration's reshuffle and centre of gravity in foreign policy

President Barack Obama’s second term in office, which will officially begin on 21 January 2013, offers him the unprecedented opportunity to reshuffle his team in charge of foreign policy and national security. In fact, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let it be known several months ago that she did not want to remain at her post should Mr. Obama be reelected. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also expressed his desire to leave the Pentagon. In parallel, the unexpected resignation of Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) David Petraeus, last November added one more post to be reassigned.


While the extent of the reshuffle is noteworthy, one must remember that many recent American presidents who enjoyed two terms in office made changes of this type. Bill Clinton replaced the diplomatic Warren Christopher with the forceful Madeleine Albright as head of the Department of State. Similarly, George W. Bush parted company with Colin Powell, whose influence within the administration was very limited. In his place, Bush named his close adviser, Condoleezza Rice. In both cases, these personnel changes were followed by a change in the country’s foreign policy.


Though these modifications are not without precedent, they nonetheless come at the end of a first term in office marked by the especially important role played by the White House in elaborating foreign policy. Despite an experienced team including, apart from Mrs. Clinton, eminent personalities like Joe Biden, Robert Gates, General James Jones and Richard Holbrooke, the president and his advisers concentrated power in their own hands to an extent rarely seen since the end of the Second World War. The works which Bob Woodward and James Mann devoted to the functioning of the Obama administration have highlighted the importance of the presidential counsellors and their propensity to get around the traditional bureaucracy[1].


The replacement of Mrs. Clinton by the high profile personality John Kerry and the arrival of the Republican Chuck Hagel at the head of the Department of Defense show the determination of President Obama to bank on experience. However, one may wonder whether this form of continuity suggests there will be further ‘insular’ functioning of the White House or whether, like some of his recent predecessors, President Obama intends to use the reshuffle to make changes in the foreign policy of the country.


  1. A second choice for the Department of State


To replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department, President Obama has named the chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee and defeated presidential candidate of the 2004 race, John Kerry. In announcing this choice, M. Obama drew attention to Mr. Kerry’s experience and knowledge of international affairs, stressing that ‘John’s entire life has prepared him for this role[2]’.


It is true that foreign policy has occupied a central place in the career of this Democrat from the State of Massachusetts, who has been in the Senate since 1985. The son of a diplomat, Kerry was particularly shaped by his experience in Vietnam, where he served with the American Navy at the end of the 1960s. Despite the military decorations which he received, upon his return from Vietnam John Kerry became a leading figure in the movement opposed to the war. In 1971, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and presented the Senators with the following question which was later widely cited : ‘how can you ask a man to be the last one to die for a mistake[3]?’ In the Senate, where he has sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee since 1985, Mr. Kerry has devoted a lot of time to international affairs, in particular to the fate of American POWs in Vietnam. This work brought him into close contact with other Senators who had served in Southeast Asia, like Republicans John McCain and Chuck Hagel[4]. On the basis of this experience, in 2004 he advanced his candidacy in a presidential campaign which was dominated by foreign policy, especially the American military intervention in Iraq. At the end of a race for the White House which highlighted his own contradictions on the Iraqi issue, he acknowledged his defeat with elegance and returned to his work in the Senate. He drew close to Barack Obama, to whom he lent his support as from the 2008 Democratic primaries. One year later, he took over from Joe Biden as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and showed himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama’s foreign policy. He is particularly credited with his contribution to the resolution of disputes between Washington and the Afghan and Pakistani authorities[5]. During the last presidential campaign, Mr. Kerry played a prominent role by being one of the principal spokesmen of the Democratic candidtate on the theme of foreign policy.  He also helped Mr. Obama to prepare himself to confront his Republican adversary, Mitt Romney, during the debates[6].


Notwithstanding his curriculum vitae and his loyalty to President Obama, Mr. Kerry was evidently not the candidate preferred by the occupant of the White House. Obama was more inclined to name Susan Rice, with whom he had developed a relationship of trust ever since he entered the Senate. This close associate of the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had in fact participated in the presidential campaign of Barack Obama beginning in 2007 and was one of the principal advisers of the Senator from Illinois in the domain of foreign policy[7]. In 2009, she entered the Obama administration as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Although her position was less prestigious than that of Mrs. Clinton and despite her being equally removed from the White House, Susan Rice turned out to be one of the most influential personalities of President Obama’s first term. Against the advice of then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and of National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, she succeeded in convincing the American president to intervene militarily in Libya[8]. The closeness between President Obama and Mrs. Rice made her one of the main spokespersons of the American administration, a role which impeded her rise to the post of Secretary of State. In fact, following the attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, Mrs. Rice explained on television that this incident, which caused the death of the United States Ambassador in Libya and three other Americans, was the result of a spontaneous demonstration which became violent. In reality, this attack was an operation planned and executed by a Libyan terrorist group. In the context of the presidential campaign, the statements by Mrs. Rice were exploited by the Republican Party in an attempt to prove that the Obama administration had, out of electoral calculations, sought to mislead American public opinion. Aware that this polemic would contribute to a ‘lengthy partisan battle’ should she be nominated to the post of Secretary of State, Susan Rice withdrew her candidacy on 14 December, thereby opening the way for John Kerry[9].


The arrival of Mrs.Rice at the State Department would have marked a certain break with the functioning of the American administration over these last four years. The closeness of personal views, but also of policy between the President and his Secretary of State would have given the latter a greater influence than that of Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Kerry. This relationship would have likely given Mrs. Rice a freedom of action comparable to that which her namesake Condoleezza Rice enjoyed as chief of U.S. diplomacy during the second term of George W. Bush. The role which Mr. Kerry and the State Department will play in American foreign policy is expected to be much more traditional, conforming to continuity of the situation with Mrs. Clinton. John Kerry will place his renown and his contacts at the service of a policy defined in the White House, which he will have to simply apply.



  1. An unusual Republican at the Pentagon


As successor to Leon Panetta at the post of Secretary of Defense, President Obama has named the former Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel. When announcing his decision on 7 January at the White House,  President Obama highlighted the patriotism of Mr. Hagel, his experience in Vietnam and the bipartisan dimension of this  nomination‘Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He knows that sending young Americans out into combat and to be wounded in the dust and mud is something that we do only when it is absolutely necessary,’ said the American president, adding that Mr. Hagel would be the first veteran of Vietnam to direct the Pentagon[10].


Like John Kerry, the political career of Chuck Hagel was shaped by his wartime action in Vietnam whence he returned with military decorations and shrapnel in his chest. Though unlike Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel supported the war right up to its end, this experience had consequences for his decisions as Senator. He kept his distance from the Republican Party and the Bush administration following the 2003 intervention in Iraq, which he authorised as Senator, but with a certain reticence[11]. The decision to send reinforcements to try to stabilise the country in 2007 was described by Mr. Hagel as the most dangerous ‘blunder’ since Vietnam. Though these positions marginalised him within his party, they enabled him to draw close to the young Senator Barack Obama at the time during a voyage to Iraq and Afghanistan. Shortly after his election to the White House, Chuck Hagel’s name was mentioned in the press for the posts of Secretary of Defense or Director of the CIA[12]. He was finally appointed as Vice Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, PIAB.


Though it allows the President to pursue a bipartisan approach in the domain of national security and to fill out his team with someone who shares his distrust of military interventions, this choice may turn out to be equally risky due to the sometimes controversial positions taken by the former Senator from Nebraska. He is in fact perceived as not being a fervent defender of Israel. Some of his adversaries, in particular among the Neoconservatives, go so far as to speak of anti-Semitism with reference to Mr. Hagel’s remarks about the ‘Jewish lobby’in 2008[13]. Though Mr. Hagel has rejected these accusations, admitting nonetheless to certain lapses in his language, this cumbersome baggage could be used against him during confirmation hearings in the Senate. This fight, which President Obama wanted to avoid when he decided against naming Susan Rice to the State Department, could also be aggravated by Mr. Hagel’s positions on Iran. The candidate for the post of Secretary of Defense is an opponent of the policy of sanctions against Tehran, which he considers counterproductive[14]. Doubts about the positions of the former Senator are nevertheless diluted by the support which he has received from eminent personalities in the Republican Party, such as Colin Powell, Robert Gates, Brent Scowcroft and Frank Carlucci[15].



  1. A trusted man at the CIA


On 7 January, Barack Obama also revealed the identity of the new director of the CIA. He chose his adviser on counter-terrorism, John Brennan, to succeed David Petraeus. The President praised the dedication of Mr. Brennan, whom he described as ‘one of the most gifted and respected intelligence professionals’ in the country[16]. Aged 57, John Brennan has spent most of his professional career in the CIA, which he joined in 1980 as a specialist in the Middle East. Later he directed the Agency’s Saudi Arabia bureau. He also delivered the daily presidential briefing to Bill Clinton, then worked alongside CIA Director George Tenet from 1999 to 2005, under the Clinton and Bush administrations.  Though he defines himself as being neither Democrat nor Republican, John Brennan participated in the campaign of Barack Obama beginning in 2007, working with one of his closest advisers in the domain of foreign policy, Denis McDonough[17]. Once elected, Mr. Obama wanted to place Mr. Brennan at the head of the CIA. But, like Susan Rice four years later, the favourite had to withdraw his candidacy because his association with the activities of the Agency under the Bush administration was politically risky for President Obama at the start of his term.


Mr. Brennan was nonetheless named to a specially created post: special adviser on counter-terrorism and deputy national security adviser. At the White House, he had greater access to the President than the Director of the CIA and his authority over the intelligence community which surpassed that of the Director of National Intelligence, DNI. He thus acquired great influence within the presidential entourage, where he was compared to ‘a priest whose blessing became indispensable’ for Mr. Obama[18]. Another sign of his political weight is that he was the administration’s spokesman on the occasion of the failed attack of Christmas 2009 and on the death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011. Mr. Brennan was also the main driver of the programme of targeted assassinations carried out by CIA drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Although this initiative goes back to the Bush administration, it should be emphasised that it took on an entirely new dimension under the presidency of Barack Obama, becoming the weapon of choice of the American administration in the fight against terrorism. Between January 2009 and April 2011, the CIA drones carried out nearly 200 strikes and killed around 2,000 persons (terrorists and civilians). At the height of the programme under the preceding administration, there was around one strike per week[19].


The identity of David Petraeus’s replacement was the least suspected of the reshuffle. Until the eve of the official announcement by Barack Obama, several names, including that of Mr. Brennan and of the acting CIA Director Michael Morell, circulated in the American press. For all that, it is difficult to consider this choice surprising given the influence Mr. Brennan acquired within the Obama administration. The American president justified his choice by stressing the closeness between the two men and their ties of friendship[20]. The arrival of a man trusted by the president at the head of the CIA marks  a return to the traditional scheme. It is appropriate to underline that the relationship between Mr. Obama and the former director of the Agency, David Petraeus, had an element of mistrust. The nomination of Mr. Brennan, if confirmed by the Senate, would thus reinforce the stature of the CIA within the intelligence community. It would also confirm a change in the role of the Agency, whose paramilitary dimension has grown considerably over the course of the past four years. This prospect is a matter of concern for some within the intelligence community who fear seeing the Agency distance itself still further from its primary mission: strategic analysis. For others, the new post of Mr. Brennan is expected to offer him the opportunity to stand back regarding the mission of this institution which he knows so well[21].


  1. Continuity at the White House


In the face of these changes which affect the whole Obama administration, the White House is noteworthy for its relative stability. The inner circle which surrounds the American president is expected to remain unchanged. Though his name was mentioned for the State Department or the CIA, national security adviser Thomas Donilon will remain at his post. As the successor to General James Jones, Mr. Donilon rapidly took charge of this position as adviser and coordinator of the process of elaborating the USA’s national security policy. Whereas General Jones had a hard time adapting to the operations and rhythms of the President’s entourage, Mr. Donilon distinguished himself by his activism and his ability to work effectively with Mr. Obama. This former chief of staff of the Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher, has been described by Vice President Joe Biden as ‘the most important person’ in the domain of foreign policy[22]. Maintaining this essential cogwheel at the heart of the American decision-making apparatus would thus appear to be a guarantee of continuity in the administration’s policy on international questions and security. Nonetheless we note that Mr. Donilon could leave his post before the end of the second term and be replaced by Susan Rice[23].


Another key member of the President’s inner circle, Denis McDonough, is also expected to remain one of the principal architects of the country’s foreign policy. This close associate of the former Democratic whip in the Senate, Tom Daschle, joined the team of Senator Obama in 2007, then accompanied him on the presidential campaign and to the White House. In the end, this specialist of international affairs, described as a ‘confidant’ of Mr. Obama, became a central element in the American national security apparatus[24]. His importance may grow still more since his name has been cited to succeed Jack Lew at the post of White House chief of staff[25]. This promotion would obviously reward his loyalty and the closeness of this 43-year-old adviser to the President. It would also be a sign of the place which international affairs are expected to occupy in the second term of Barack Obama.


The third pillar of the team of advisers to Barack Obama in the domain of national security, Ben Rhodes is also expected to remain in his post. This former assistant to Representative Lee Hamilton (Democrat), who in this capacity participated in the work of the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, entered the entourage of Senator Obama in 2007. Like Denis McDonough, he accompanied the Democratic candidate during the presidential campaign and went on to the White House. Mr. Rhodes served as speechwriter to the candidate, then President on foreign policy matters[26]. His many speeches since Mr. Obama’s reelection show that despite his 35 years he has growing influence at the White House at the outset of the second presidential term.


In view of the way the American administration functioned during the first term of Barack Obama, the continued presence of these three advisers in the immediate entourage of the President would seem to be more indicative than the reshuffle as to any forthcoming change in American foreign policy. These three individuals – and particularly Messrs. McDonough and Rhodes – embody the essence of Obama’s thinking in terms of foreign policy. As James Mann explains, this vision of the world, shaped by the intervention in Iraq more than by the Vietnam war, is based on a more modest role for the United States in world affairs[27]. Regardless the personality and positions of the newcomers, this is expected to remain the foundation of Barack Obama’s actions over the course of the coming four years.



  1. Conclusion


While the team in charge of national security put in place by Barack Obama upon his arrival at the White House has often been described, referring to the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln, as a ‘team of rivals’, the new one is expected to be noted for its cohesion and homogeneity. In the domain of national security – as in other fields as well – this reshuffle brings out the determination of the American president to rely on persons he trusts, who share his vision of the world even if this means exposing himself to criticism for a lack of diversity in his choices or to turbulent confirmation hearings.


From an organisational standpoint, these replacements establish the central role of the White House in the elaboration of the foreign and national security policy of the United States. While this operational mode has given rise to tensions during the first term, the newcomers seem much less inclined to question the centralisation which President Obama has pushed to a degree rarely seen since the end of the Second World War. On this subject, Mr. Obama sets himself apart from predecessors like George W. Bush or even Richard Nixon, who gave their Secretaries of State more autonomy during their second term.


Basically these changes suggest a greater consistency in American foreign policy, centered around what is called a light footprint[28] strategy. The positions of Messrs. Kerry and Hagel, as well as the actions of Mr. Brennan at the White House plead in favour of limited involvement of the United States on the international stage. The reticence of Mr. Obama to intervene militarily abroad, as evidenced in particular by the position of his administration in Libya, is not expected to be questioned by the State Department and the Pentagon. The decision of President Obama to accelerate the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the limited support given to the French intervention in Mali confirm this trend[29]. On the other hand, the discrete and targeted actions of the CIA and the special forces are expected to remain the favoured tool of President Obama for acting abroad.


This change, which is a continuation of what occurred in Mr. Obama’s first term, nonetheless raises the question of the influence of the United States in international issues of primary importance, such as Iran and Syria. Indeed, won’t the arrival of Mr. Hagel at the Pentagon reduce the margin for manœuvre and the means of pressure available to Washington vis-à-vis Tehran? Similarly, how will this reticence to intervene be interpreted by Bashar al-Assad now that the Syrian conflict is getting bogged down? In the domain of intelligence, won’t the accent placed on paramilitary activities by the CIA hinder the Agency’s ability to provide the American government with strategic intelligence and thus to identify the threats of tomorrow? Confronted with challenges of this breadth, management of which will shape the legacy of Barack Obama, one may wonder whether the American president has not taken a risk by choosing a cabinet which is so homogeneous as to weaken the discussions by depriving them of contradictory opinions and dissonant points of view. The degree of isolation of the White House will surely be a determining element in the prospect of what is already seen by some observers as a ‘disengagement’[30]  of the United States from the international scene.




© ESISC 2013

[1] Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2010. James Mann, The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power, New York, Viking Penguin, 2012.
[2] Mark Lander, ‘Kerry Named for the Role of a Lifetime’, The New York Times, 21 December 2012.
[3] Michael Kranish, ‘With antiwar role, high visibility’, The Boston Globe, 17  June 2003.
[4] Douglas Brinkley, ‘Born on the Seventh Floor’, Foreign Policy, 20 December 2012.
[5] Ann Gearan, Karen DeYoung,  ‘Chuck Hagel, John Kerry share similarities as expected Obama Cabinet nominees ‘, The Washington Post, 15 December 2012.
[6] Karen DeYoung,  ‘If confirmed, John Kerry could bring his face-to-face style of diplomacy to State Department’, The Washington Post, 22 December 2012.
[7] James Mann, op. cit., pp. 77-78.
[8] James Traub, ‘The Point Guard’, Foreign Policy, September-October 2012.
[10] Remarks by the President in Nomination of Secretary of Defense and CIA Director, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 7 January 2013.
[11] Joseph Lelyveld, ‘The Heartland Dissident ‘, The New York Times Magazine, 12 February 2006.
[12] Lolita C. Baldor, ‘Defense Secretary front-runner, GOP’s Chuck Hagel has strong Obama ties’, The Associated Press, 17 December 2012.
[14] Scott Shane, David E. Sanger, ‘Obama’s Pick for Defense Is an Ally, and a Lightning Rod’, The New York Times, 6 January 2013.
[15] Mark Thompson, ‘The Hagel Choice’, Time, 8 January 2013.
[16] ‘Obama taps Brennan as CIA director’, CNN, 7 January 2013.
[17] James Mann, op. cit., pp. 103-104. Micah Zenko, ‘The Lethal Bureaucrat’, Foreign Policy, 11 September 2012.
[18] Micah Zenko, ‘ The Lethal Bureaucrat’, op. cit.
[19] Raphaël RAMOS, Etats-Unis : Evolution du rôle de la CIA et du Pentagone dans la lutte contre le terrorisme [United States : Changing role of the CIA and of the Pentagon in the fight against terrorism] ESISC, 11 September 2011, p. 9.
[20] Siobhan Gorman, ‘ CIA Choice Is Trusted Adviser on Terror’, The Wall Street Journal, 8 January 2013.
[21] Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti, Choice to Lead C.I.A. Faces a Changed Agency ‘, The New York Times, 8 January 2013.
[22] Peter Baker, ‘A Manager of Overseas Crises, as Much as the World Permits’, The New York Times, 23 September 2012.
[23] David E. Sanger, ‘Obama Expected to Name Kerry as Secretary of State’, The New York Times, 16 December 2012.
[24] James Mann, op. cit., pp. 68-71.
[25] Caren Bohan, ’What Will the Pick of Chief of Staff Say About Obama’s Management Style?’, National Journal, 9 January 2013.
[26] James Mann, op. cit., pp. 66-68.
[27] Ibid., p. 71.
[28] David E. Sanger, ‘ In Step of ‘Light Footprint,’ Nominees Reflect a Shift’, The New York Times, 8 January 2013.
[29] Jennifer Epstein, ‘Obama speeds up transition in Afghanistan ‘, Politico, 11 January 2013. . Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, U.S. Set to Offer Limited Support for Military Effort’, The Wall Street Journal, 14 January 2013.
[30] David Rothkopf, ‘The Disengagers’, Foreign Policy, 7 January 2013.





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