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Foreign policy: Do Obama's globe-trotters play?

The president is calling the shots, but it remains to be seen if his team of rivals can keep working together.

July 26, 2009|DOYLE McMANUS

When Barack Obama arrived at the White House about six months ago, some of his freshly-minted aides weren't sure how much time or energy the new president wanted to devote to foreign policy. Back then, the nation's economic crisis seemed all-consuming. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demanded immediate attention, but so did the president's ambitious plans for healthcare and energy policy. That's one reason the new administration named a flock of special envoys to the Middle East, Afghanistan and other hot spots: to give the president extra time before he had to plunge in.

The appointment of so many heavy hitters instantly plunged Washington into one of its favorite pastimes: figuring out who's up and who's down. The cast of characters was irresistible. Not only was there Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State, former Gen. James L. Jones as national security advisor and Robert M. Gates as secretary of Defense, but former Sen. George J. Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East, the omnivorous Richard C. Holbrooke as envoy to Afghanistan and strategist Dennis Ross as envoy-in-waiting to Iran. The gossip was so ubiquitous that even Obama joined in, joking that when Clinton slipped and broke her elbow, Holbrooke was seen nearby with a can of WD-40 lubricant.

So who's running the new administration's foreign policy? The answer turns out to be simple, clear and -- in retrospect -- obvious: Obama.

The new president didn't avoid foreign policy; instead, he piled more items on the agenda. He immersed himself in reviews of policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. He took advantage of his own novelty to announce a "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia, Europe and the Islamic world. And he launched a campaign for global nuclear disarmament, one of his long-running passions but not, strictly speaking, an immediate necessity.

But he encountered obstacles as well. Iran's hard-line regime spurned Obama's outstretched hand. Russia's Vladimir Putin appeared unmoved by his visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed Obama's demand for a freeze on Jewish settlements. And Arab governments balked at his requests for positive gestures toward Israel.

And that's where all those special envoys come in. Obama's going to need his unusual collection of big talents (and big egos) to work well together. Defying both the gossips and the odds, they have. So far, at least, no significant policy disputes have publicly surfaced, a level of harmony Obama's predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, did not maintain even at this early point in their presidencies.

There has been vigorous internal debate: On Afghanistan, for example, military commanders sought a commitment for more combat troops while Vice President Joe Biden warned of the perils of trying to do too much. But nothing has qualified as a major split.

The division of labor seems to have worked out this way: Mitchell works quietly on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Holbrooke works noisily on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Biden handles Iraq. Ross started out in charge of Iran but (with no prospect for negotiations there at the moment) was promoted to a bigger job designing policy on everything from Israel to Pakistan.

What has that left for Hillary Clinton? She's looked a little marginalized, even though she's responsible for the big powers: Europe, Russia, India and China (which she shares with Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner). Without a crisis on her plate, there has been no spotlight on her work.

So when Clinton gave what might otherwise have been a routine speech earlier this month, her aides billed it as a major address, a coming-out for a foreign policy heavyweight. With Holbrooke, Mitchell and Ross all present in a ritual display of fealty, the secretary of State staked her claim as chief articulator of Obama's global vision. She declared her enthusiasm for Obama's doctrine of relentless "engagement" with adversaries such as Iran (an idea she denounced when she was running against him), said her job was to build "an architecture of global cooperation," and headed for India.

Inside the White House, the president also turns for advice to two little-known aides who have one advantage over the stars in the Cabinet: They've known him longer. One is Mark Lippert, Obama's chief foreign policy advisor in his four years in the Senate, who served in Iraq as a Navy reservist; the other is Denis McDonough, a former Senate aide who ran the campaign's foreign policy side. Lippert and McDonough have deliberately kept a low profile (no television appearances, for example), but you're likely to hear more from them in the years ahead.

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