President Barack Obama has been commander-in-chief for four years, but the world only now will see the full flower of Obama foreign policy unfold. It likely will have less to do with any grand ambition to shape an increasingly dangerous world, and instead will be focused on avoiding new wars as he focuses on what he has called “nation building” at home.
In the past week, the president has provided important clues about how he views his historic legacy through nominating a national security team that more closely reflects his own personal preferences and through the underlying message he sent last Friday to visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two men agreed most U.S.-led combat operations in Afghanistan would end this spring, signaling an accelerated end to the second war Obama inherited from President George W. Bush.
First term nominations often involve a complex political calculus that doesn’t entirely reflect a president’s policy and personal priorities, and that was also the case with Obama. Though Hillary Clinton has won global praise for her performance as secretary of state, Obama’s motivation in picking her was driven more by politics than policy. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, though one of the finest leaders to ever serve in the Pentagon, was a Bush administration holdover and often disagreed with White House decisions.
A flurry of misplaced criticism has welcomed Obama’s national security nominations for Term Two: Senator John Kerry for secretary of state, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense and trusted White House adviser and counter-terrorism specialist John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Critics’ current focus is on how this group of entirely white men – add now his nominee for treasury secretary Jack Lew – fail to reflect the diversity of the rainbow coalition that got the president re-elected.
Yet we choose our presidents to lead us according to the policy directions they’ve set for the country, not to achieve gender and ethnic balance in their choices of senior officials. On that score, our first African-American president is being true to his voters. What unifies this group is that they are far closer to the president who has nominated them than were his first term choices, both in the policies they represent and in their personal closeness to a president whose inner circle is historically small.