December 5, 2008 – Monday’s formal announcement that Hillary Clinton will be Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, and Robert Gates will remain as Secretary of Defense, can hardly have caught anyone by surprise. Rumors were rampant that Clinton was the front-runner for the job for over two weeks, and Gates’ name was in the mix from the beginning. It is surprising, however, that President-elect Obama’s search for personnel to fill the top foreign and defense policy posts in his new administration has placed such a great emphasis on experience and continuity. Obama should revisit his apparent presumptions: Nowhere is change more needed than in U.S. foreign policy.
It should be obvious to the president-elect that experience is not synonymous with good judgment. After all, his own lack of experience did not block his path to the Oval Office, and might ultimately have cleared the way. Wisdom and insight might actually be impeded by years of working in the same field, exposed only to the canon of the profession. New faces and a fresh perspective are particularly welcome in old, tired industries that have run out of ideas. That certainly applies to Detroit automakers, but they are hardly alone: all companies are forced to change course if their products don’t fulfill customer’s expectations.
Or at least they should be. But the Washington foreign policy community ran out of ideas years ago. The clearest indication of that was is its embrace of the Iraq War, which won the backing of left-leaning think tanks and academics, and 29 of 50 Senate Democrats. Many of those same people, incredibly, will be running foreign affairs in the next administration.
Experienced Washington hands on both the left and the right have resisted calls to bring our troops home from Iraq. They clamor for new and better ways to build foreign countries and fight other people’s wars. Beyond-the-beltway Americans, meanwhile, want to build our own country, and bring an end to our own wars. Despite the fact that policy wonks are still marketing products that Americans no longer want to buy, they, like the carmakers, continue to wield great influence.
There was a chance that Obama might cut them off. He was not part of the Washington policy community in the fall of 2002 when he spoke out against the Iraq War. His outsider status may have helped him see that the war was likely to be more costly and time-consuming than the advocates for war predicted. His inexperience did not prevent him from recognizing that the war would aid al Qaeda’s recruitment efforts and undermine U.S. security.
Ever since, Obama has rightly worn his opposition to the Iraq War as a badge of honor. His principled stand, taken at a time when few people — in Washington or out –were willing to do the same, allowed him to turn his opponents’ (first Clinton’s and then McCain’s) supposed advantage in foreign policy into a liability, or at least a nullity. If experienced politicians could support a war that now two-thirds of all Americans believe to have been a mistake, then experience is overrated.
The ideal combination, of course, is both good judgment and experience. A few Washington insiders with many years of foreign policy experience had the wisdom and courage to vote against the Iraq War resolution. Anyone who was willing to challenge the dominant assumptions in the fall of 2002 should be expected to carefully scrutinize all aspects of U.S. foreign policy today.
That scrutiny is badly needed across the board, from our dealings with Iran and Pakistan to relations with Russia and China. The American people expressed their desire for change by choosing Obama as their next president, and they expected that change in the Oval Office would also translate into major course corrections at the Pentagon, at Foggy Bottom and in the NSC.
Unfortunately, the president-elect’s decision to turn to a cadre of insiders who refused to speak out against the Iraq War before it began, and who have since deflected calls to end the mission in a timely fashion, suggests that we will only get more of the same. And that means that President Barack Obama is likely to look more favorably on Iraq-style wars than he did as an Illinois legislator in 2002.
Christopher A. Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.