The Noisy Cabinet

With his plethora of international-affairs appointments, Obama better be a good listener. All the divergent voices could sabotage his foreign policy.

The fact-finding visit of the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to South Asia and the Middle East has raised questions about how foreign and security policy is going to be coordinated in the Obama administration. Because, after all, few people received Joe Biden as a member of the U.S. legislature. Instead, he was seen as the vice president-elect, a representative of the incoming president-and perhaps his voice as well?

Who precisely will be speaking for the president in foreign policy at any given time is going to be a question many foreign leaders (as well as domestic commentators) will be pondering. The assumption that the incoming vice president has been tasked to take the lead on South Asia issues was reiterated by Examiner commentator Aimee Kligman and immediately bounced off the echo chamber of the regional press.

But is that a correct assessment? After all, the president-elect has also designated a "special envoy" for South Asia (likely to be former-UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke). Perhaps here Barack Obama is following the advice of the late Peter Rodman in picking people who, following his direction, will take the lead in forming U.S. policy for specific areas of the world and will be able to impose them on the bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments.

But isn't the Secretary of State going to be taking the lead in rejuvenating her department as the lead actor in U.S. foreign policy? Michael Singh, a former NSC senior director for Middle Eastern affairs, is worried about misuse of the special-envoy concept. He observes,

While there is significant overlap between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, this is precisely why there is an Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia at the State Department, and a counterpart Senior Director at the NSC. An envoy would risk being redundant.

Or worse. Unless the president is reasonably confident that his vice president, his special envoy, his secretary of state (and her relevant subordinates) and his NSC staff all have their boats sailing in the same direction, this could lead to turf wars and a lot of spinning wheels.

It may also create confusion as to who is speaking with the president's voice and authority. One concern that Senator Clinton has, according to Politico, in preparing for her confirmation hearings is that she cannot "appear like she's trying to formulate her own foreign policy" that differs from the president's. Ditto for the vice president. Yet both Clinton and Biden-not to mention special-envoy picks like Holbrooke-have all extensively offered foreign-policy prescriptions in the past (and some which don't agree with each other to boot).

Obama still has time to "dry run" his national security team-a proposal advanced in these pages last week-but even if he can't, he'll need to set the ground rules soon. Otherwise, we run the risk of having multiple "Obama administrations" in foreign policy-at a time when a clear voice and message is needed.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this essay are entirely his own.