Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama's Foreign Policy Shuffle

When President Obama entered office, he had little foreign policy experience. Like George W. Bush, he surrounded himself with an experienced team. His two best appointments were Robert Gates as Defense Secretary and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Now, as the New York Times, among others notes, his team is splitting up.

Gates is set to retire. Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg is stepping down. Adm. Mike Mullen is leaving as well. So what will the new team look like? And will it be able to protect Obama's in Congress?

The role that Gates played was pretty much indispensable for Obama. He provided enormous cover on national security issues. Republicans refrained, by and large, from attacking Obama's actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's possible that the unity that the GOP has displayed may begin to fray and that some in Congress will be emboldened to attack Obama, not for failing to prosecute the fight, but for doing too much. Haley Barbour, out on the hustings, has already adopted this line of attack. Others might as well.

Obama could try and duplicate the Gates decision by tapping a Republican to become defense secretary or by choosing Sen. Joe Lieberman, who isn't running again. Lieberman would still the voices of the neocons, but he seems an improbable choice. Obama values team unity and Lieberman might act as a bit of a free agent. What about Colin L. Powell? He would be the boldest choice Obama could make. Powell may be tired of government service, but his reputation has severely tarnished by his service in the Bush administration. Obama could offer a chance for redemption and a measure of revenge at his neocon tormentors and Dick Cheney.

The most like choice appears to be CIA chief Leon Panetta, who has largely remained out of the news, which is what Obama likes. This is an administration run from the top down. Obama values loyalty. Panetta supplies it. In addition, he has excellent connections with Congress, another plus for Obama. The boldest choice might be to appoint Gen. David H. Petraeus as defense secretary. That would also take him out of the loop as a potential presidential rival, though the chances of Petraeus running in 2012 seem awfully slender.

As so often happens, foreign policy has consumed a far greater part of Obama's portfolio than he would have liked. The intervention in Libya, which isn't going well, is the latest adventure to take away Obama's focus from domestic affairs. Who he does and does not choose for the next two years will have a decisive effect on how he handles looming crises.