The President’s Men

Meet the men and women who will run America’s foreign policy.

Who really runs American foreign policy? It is an intriguing question because as much as President Obama is the face of his country to the rest of the world, he is not alone in the decisionmaking process.

Besides the secretaries of state and defense, Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, Obama is surrounded by his national security advisor, the former Marine Corps General James Jones, and the experts of the National Security Council. Not all of these people are old friends. To the contrary: the president ran against Mrs Clinton in the primaries while both Gates and Jones served previous administration. So how have things played out?

Gates is generally considered to be the primary architect of the administration’s new Afghan war strategy. Originally expected to be replaced midway through the president’s first term, it is difficult to imagine him waving off while the country is in the midst of withdrawing from Iraq and intensifying the war in Afghanistan. Moreso, because Obama would have to find a replacement that might be less enthusiastic about the recently-announced Afghan surge.

Although a Republican, Gates and Obama share a vision on the future of the American armed forces. The secretary understands that the country is likely to be involved in irregular warfare for that reason, he resisted the purpose the purchase of additional F-22 Raptors last summer over objections of Air Force officials and congressmen. Gates managed to persuade Congress that no additional funds should come available for fighter aircraft. “If the Department of Defense can’t figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year,” he said, “then our problems are much bigger than anything that can be cured by buying a few more ships and planes.”

The relationship with Hillary Clinton has been “scrutinized for tensions as closely as satellite photos of Iranian enrichment sites,” notes Politico but if ever there were disagreements, the media did not pick up on them.

Initially commentators worried that the more high-profile of foreign policy agendas, the war in Afghanistan and the Middle Eastern peace process, would be outsourced to envoys Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell but as it turns out, both men are firmly under the State Department’s grip and actually making very little progress. It is not unthinkable that Clinton, who is traveling around the world more extensively than any secretary of state in recent history, will take on these challenges herself, shunting the envoys aside.

The day to day power in the White House is wielded however by the lower level officials of the National Security Council. Atop the hierarchy sits Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton and was transfered off Hillary Clinton’s staff last June in part because the department’s career diplomats refused to grant him a broader portfolio. His responsibilities at State were limited to Iran and although this still falls within his purview, as deputy national security advisor he is now responsible for all of the “Central Region” that encompasses the Middle East and South Asia.

The fastest rise may be that of Denis McDonough, also a Clinton era foreign policy expert who joined Obama’s campaign early on. He currently serves as the National Security Council’s acting chief of staff and in that capacity, he is by the president’s side more than any of the aforementioned officials. He represents the president both within and without the NSC. His influence is gauged to be so considerable that president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Leslie H. Gelb recently christened him the “Lord High Executioner.”

On the whole it would appear that within less than a year, the Obama Administration has found itself a solid foreign-policy team that includes political allies and former rivals who both have the skill necessary to implement an agenda that by no means lacks ambition.

One man’s influence is rather more ambiguous; that of Vice President Joe Biden. Like Clinton, he is something of a globetrotter and unlike many of his predecessors, he sits in on foreign policy discussions for which he gathered experience as chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee between 2001 and 2003 and between 2007 and 2009. Whether he will survive, politically, to serve for a second term is another matter though.