During his first presidential run, then-Senator Obama placed at the center of his campaign what he argued to be the flaws of the Bush foreign policy. However, as noted by Matt McReddie ‘15, “Once he was elected, President Obama adopted an approach in this area which appeared quite similar to the policies championed by George W. Bush in his second term.”
Although he pledged to close Guantanamo, the prison remains open to this day. After excoriating the Iraq war and the surge, he accepted the same timetable for withdrawing troops from the country which was set by the Bush administration. He even increased the number of troops and drone strikes in Afghanistan. After years of rejecting tough sanctions on Iran that were advocated by members of both parties in Congress, President Obama finally adopted many of the measures. While he “initially downplayed the Freedom agenda,” his rhetoric shifted during the Arab Spring to sound like a clone of the 43rd President.
His defense secretaries were emblematic of this cautious approach. He held over Robert Gates from the Bush administration, a Republican who was widely respected for his work in the intelligence community. After Gates retired, he tapped Leon Panetta to fill the post. While Panetta has a far more liberal past than Gates as Bill Clinton’s budget director and chief of staff, he turned out to be far more hawkish than one may have initially expected.
This transformation was likely a result of three factors. First, in some areas such as Guantanamo Bay, Obama most likely came to realize the gap between the rhetoric of a campaign and the ugly reality of governing. In addition, the President, whose main weakness in the 2008 campaign was his perceived inexperience and weakness, sought to take foreign policy off the table as a potential area of disagreement in the 2012 campaign.
Because he was already vulnerable due to the unpopularity of health care reform and his approach to the economy, the possibility of Republicans successfully casting the President as a foreign policy lightweight threatened to derail his re-election prospects and turn him into the next Jimmy Carter. The success of this strategy was clearly evident during the third presidential debate where Mitt Romney was widely accused of “plagiarizing” Obama’s foreign policy.
Most people failed to note the irony that it may have been Obama who stole it in the first place. Lastly, the President had to spend a great deal of his first term focusing on domestic issues. He faced an economy, which was reeling from the brink of the financial crisis, and he maintained an ambitious domestic agenda which he hoped to implement.
However, second terms are often far more foreign policy focused than the first. This trend is likely to be even more relevant in Obama’s case. While he maintained a supermajority in both houses upon taking office in 2009, Republicans now control the House of Representatives and with it the power to block any ambitious item which the President proposes. In addition, the President will face a number of decisions in this area, which will prove to be critical to his legacy, including how to prevent or contain a nuclear Iran.
Therefore, it is likely his attention will shift to foreign policy where he still preserves complete authority. Now that he is free from the prospect of another election, the President may feel emboldened to adopt a foreign policy agenda more true to the rhetoric of his first presidential campaign.
Just as Leon Panetta and Bob Gates were symbolic of Obama’s foreign policy moderation during his first term, the nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary indicates a profound shift to the left in this area may be coming in the next four years. Although Hagel is a Republican, this identification is a product of his fiscal and social conservatism. He represents a brand of foreign policy which is far to left of anything even Obama has espoused.
On Iran, he is opposed to any sanctions, preferring a strategy of containment after this rogue nation already develops the weapon. This is a view which is at odds with all one hundred members of the senate.
While Secretary Panetta called the potential sequestration cuts to the military “devastating,” and President Obama has assured the public that they “would not happen,” Hagel has defended these draconian cuts, arguing the military “needs to be paired down.”
Hagel also has a history of being out of the mainstream with regards to his approach to Israel. He refused to condemn the violent Palestinian second Intifada and has called for direct talks with the terrorist organization Hamas.
During a private meeting with Vladimir Putin, President Obama’s microphone accidently captured him telling the Russian leader that he would have more “flexibility” after he won his second term. Chuck Hagel’s nomination shows where the President will use the newfound flexibility to lead the country over the next four years.