Michael KreponThe Bucket Brigade

For his first term, President Barack Obama selected Significant Outsiders for his key foreign policy and national security posts. In his second term, he depends heavily on known commodities and loyalists. He promotes from within and keeps the State Department on a short leash. As his original appointees leave, their successors have less clout. Some senior positions in his inner circle have turned over three times in six years.

The Secretary of State has his hands full fire-fighting and trying to alter the ugly trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. It’s not apparent what portfolios the national security adviser has decided to make her own. The Pentagon’s resources are contracting, and the Secretary of Defense cannot successfully downplay this fact when he travels abroad. The President’s advisers are hard-pressed to provide him cover in dealing with political foes, skeptical friends or foreign challengers. With some fires burning and others smoldering, senior officials find it hard to engage in preventive diplomacy except in the most immediate cases.

The White House is therefore susceptible to new crises and will be short-handed to deal with them if and when they arise. Since bad news in foreign affairs usually comes in bunches, this is a particularly vulnerable period for the Obama Administration.

The world is better off with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is also more unruly. The United States spent its unipolar moment waging trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will take time to replenish the political capital lost in these campaigns.

The champions of these wars keep scolding the Obama Administration for not being tough-minded enough when someone steps out of line. Their reflexive prescriptions for toughness are a form of political amnesia as well as point-scoring. Obama Administration officials would also like to selectively forget recent history. The high-mindedness of their candidate’s 2008 foreign policy platform has been mocked and misshapen by brutality abroad. Think of how it feels to be Samantha Power, who chronicled the genocide in Rwanda and then spent time in Barack Obama’s Senate office. She now witnesses the Syrian Problem from Hell as US Ambassador to the United Nations. This harsh world mocks idealism and tough-mindedness in equal measure.

When presidents face difficult times, as all presidents do, they have two choices. One is to rely on confidantes and circle the wagons. The other is to bring in advisers who are not part of the President’s inner circle, but who have the standing and experience to help mend fences and deal effectively with crises. FDR reached out to two internationally minded Republicans, Henry L. Stimson and Frank Knox, as war clouds darkened over Europe and the Pacific. On a far less consequential but still meaningful scale, Ronald Reagan brought Howard Baker into the White House after the Iran/Contra debacle.

President Obama’s impulse has been to circle the wagons. This instinct is understandable, especially when reaching across the aisle has usually resulted in getting his fingers burned. When this president finds himself in trouble, he turns to former high-ranking staffers rather than Significant Outsiders.

Here is a sobering thought: If President Obama now sought to recruit heavyweights to build bridges, fight fires and defuse crises, whom would he call?

This problem transcends the Obama Administration. Another sobering thought: Who would a future Republican president rely upon to handle key foreign policy and national security assignments?


  1. j_kies (History)

    As an experienced player and having seen/heard much from the ‘heavyweights’ from both parties: What’s your short list Michael?

    Are you crowd sourcing a list from the readers? I don’t see anyone in either party that displays the judgment / professionalism that I believe are needed for formulation and conduct of wise defense and foreign policy. The future looks bleak.

    • krepon (History)


      Good idea. I would like to solicit names for the next Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor in a Democratic or Republican administration.

      I don’t see a George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn or James Baker out there. Maybe it’s because we lionize the folks who got us through the Cold War. Maybe it’s because other fields of endeavor have become more interesting and have drawn off talent from foreign policy and national security. Maybe it’s partly a function of both Parties turning more inward. But it does give me pause when John Bolton’s name is mentioned for the positions discussed above.

      Other thoughts are hereby solicited.


  2. krepon (History)

    One less fire fighter:

    WASHINGTON — William J. Burns, a career diplomat who led the Obama administration’s back-channel negotiations with Iran, plans to step down as the State Department’s second-ranking official in October, administration officials said on Friday.

    Mr. Burns, the deputy secretary of state, has been a trusted diplomat in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He has twice delayed his retirement, most recently at the request of President Obama.

  3. KL (History)

    While not a fan, Colin Powell coudl fit the bill.

    Others will scoff, and he does not have the “gravitas” but Steve Hadley (if he would do it) could be another.

    John Hamre?

    John Deutch?

    These two served mostly democrats, but at least they are not Obama inner circle.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)


    MANILA, Philippines – Talks on the Enhanced Defense Cooperations Agreement (EDCA) may be going smoothly but that does not mean that the Philippines will accommodate just any ship or aircraft from the United States, especially ones carrying nuclear weapons.
    Malacañang has stated that any agreement with the US will be guided by the 1987 Philippine Constitution and other earlier treaties between the two countries.
    Asked if the Philippine government will ban US warships carrying nuclear weapons into the country, deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte on Monday said the answer was “quite obvious.

    Read more: http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/594385/palace-wont-allow-nuclear-weapons-in-ph-amid-us-defense-pact#ixzz2yvfRYUGE
    Follow us: @inquirerdotnet on Twitter | inquirerdotnet on Facebook

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    PARIS — The French Navy plans to send three women officers to sail in the ballistic missile submarine fleet, a first for the French service, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said April 15.


  6. Bradley Laing (History)


    One disconcerting exhibit was by Moscow-based Concern Morinformsystem – AGAT, which displayed two models illustrating how the Club K Container Missile System uses ordinary 40-foot cargo containers to conceal a variety of anti-ship and land-attack missiles.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)


    TAMPA: The head of the Intelligence Community, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, told the world’s biggest intelligence conference that he has recommended to the White House that it approve significantly higher resolutions for the nation’s one remaining commercial spy satellite company.

    Currently, the United States limits the sale of commercial imagery to half a meter. The lowest current official resolution is 41 centimeters, although I understand the next DigitalGlobe bird, WorldView 3, will be able to supply photos with significantly lower resolutions to government clients such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency. So if DigitalGlobe has an image at a higher resolution, it actually has to make it blurrier before it can sell the image on the commercial market. A recent example of this is the satellite photos that DigitalGlobe supplied to Australia in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)

    The big question, though, is why a country that suffered a disaster at a nuclear power plant (which remains ongoing) three years ago would choose to push the export of nuclear power plants — and especially to countries that are prone to earthquakes, like Turkey. It is deplorable from moral and other viewpoints that the Abe administration treats the export of nuclear power equipment and technology as a pillar in its economic growth strategy…

    A clause in the accord states that Turkey can enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel if Japan agrees in writing to a specific instance of enrichment or reprocessing. Enriched uranium and plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel can be used to make nuclear weapons. Thus the clause runs counter to global efforts against nuclear proliferation.