Saturday, January 12, 2013

The stage, then, will be set for Obama to put his own stamp on US strategy

With a new round of nominations to his national security team, President Obama is showing that he is reaching out to his own confidants rather than, as in his first Administration, to figures like Hillary Clinton and Bab Gates who commanded wide respect but who were not personally close to him. Although the Senate hearing process may contain some heated moments, we expect all Obama’s nominees to be confirmed. As one senior Republican observer commented to us: “The debate is about who will control Republican foreign policy thinking: the neo-conservatives or the traditional realists. It is not intended to block any of the nominees, even the most contentious Chuck Hagel.” The stage, then, will be set for Obama to put his own stamp on US strategy. As we noted in our “drivers” for 2013, we expect this to emphasize a reduction in the US foreign policy exposure rather than risky new initiatives. This approach was on display this week during the visit of Afghan President Karzai to theWhite House, State Department and Pentagon for consultations about the way ahead in that country. Following a noisy debate at think tanks about policy options, Obama is now preparing US public opinion for a quicker cessation of US combat operations by the spring of this year. No decision has yet been announced about the number of residual forces to be left in country post 2014, but many observers now expect that this will be significantly fewer than the 20,000 recommended by the military leadership. Major tests of Obama’s “light footprint” approach lie ahead with Syria and Iran but indications so far are that he will be very cautious about US military engagement. As before, the unpredictable element will be Israeli policies. The Administration is preparing for a testy relationship with the new Israeli government following the January 22nd election. In Asia a team of senior national security officials will visit South Korea and Japan next week. The reaction to the new Japanese cabinet has been to note its hawkish disposition toward China. In public, US officials are anxious to avoid any flare-up of tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, but in private they tell us that they welcome the emergence of a greater Japanese awareness of the geo-strategic dangers in the region of an unchecked Chinese rise to hegemony.   

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