But in nominating Sen. John Kerry to be secretary of state, former senator Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to be Treasury secretary and John Brennan to be CIA director, and in keeping Tom Donilon to run the National Security Council, the president is sending a clear message that what you’ve seen is what you’ll continue to get in America’s foreign policy.
Former State Department official Karl Inderfurth has tried to put a positive spin on the new team by calling its members “a band of brothers.” But one could just as easily call them the usual suspects. Unfortunately, old ideas and standard Washington thinking will probably be just as effective in improving foreign policy as they have been in solving economic and political problems at home.
Of course, familiarity should not reflexively breed contempt. But the same qualities that make these men well-known, comfortable with one another and probably confirmable may also limit them. They are closely linked to a Washington establishment that has struggled mightily to cope with a radically changed Middle East, our faltering economy, the challenges of complex and volatile global markets, and the emergence of new threats such as cyberwarfare. Is this really the right crew to produce the policy changes that America needs and that Obama was elected twice to provide?
Kerry is perhaps the quintessential Democratic Party foreign policy leader: Not only is he chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been a leading voice on international issues since entering the Senate in 1985. Hagel was in the Senate for just two terms, ending in 2009, but since then he has been a fixture in the Washington policy community, serving as a co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, chairing the Atlantic Council and teaching at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
Brennan, an innovator in shaping America’s controversial drone warfare strategies, is also a 25-year veteran of the CIA and would be returning to an agency whose culture is resolutely resistant to change. And Lew, a respected member of the Obama and Clinton administrations, is a consummate Washington insider but has limited experience in dealing with international financial markets.
Since his first days in office, Obama has been criticized for relying too heavily on a very small group of advisers, almost all in the White House, and for being largely disconnected from his Cabinet. For all the heavy hitters on the original team of rivals — think Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner — much of the real heavy lifting on foreign policy was done in the small circle that convened with the president for his morning security briefings, typically including Vice President Biden, Donilon, Brennan, deputy national security adviser Dennis McDonough and Biden aide Tony Blinken.