Personnel Matters

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

The liquidation of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden presented Russia and the United States with a rare opportunity to see eye to eye on an important issue.  Lately, the two countries have been sitting in opposite corners of the ring, with Russia accusing the United States and NATO in exceeding – some in Moscow say abusing – the mandate of United Nation Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya.  The death of the world’s most wanted terrorist has shown that both countries still share common interests. 

Moscow was visibly pleased by the fact that President Dmitry Medvedev was in the selected group of world’s leaders whom U.S. President Barack Obama briefed on the news before making a TV announcement.  The Kremlin responded with a statement of its own that pointedly reminded everyone that Russia had the first-hand experience with Al-Qaeda terrorist activity.  The statement went on to express Russia’s commitment to increased international cooperation on fighting global terrorism.  Medvedev and Obama will have a chance to discuss specifics of this cooperation when they meet on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Deauville, France, at the end of the month.

Bin Laden’s death with increase pressure on the Obama administration to find an accelerated exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan.  (The Washington Post quoted “a senior administration official” as saying “Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan.”)  A negotiated settlement with the Taliban is expected to be an intrinsic part of this strategy.

Russia has a lot at stake in Afghanistan and needs to carefully watch how the situation there develops.  Obviously, Moscow was never happy with the presence of a substantial U.S. military force in Afghanistan.  Yet, the Kremlin is deeply concerned that any precipitous departure of U.S. troops may result in the installation of a radical Islamist regime in Kabul, which, in turn, will destabilize countries in the Central Asia and send waves of radicalization toward Russia’s southern borders.  Russia’s additional pain is the constant flow of narcotics originating in Afghanistan.        

Russia feels that by agreeing to allow the transport of NATO equipment to Afghanistan through its airspace, it has earned a voice in the discussion of Afghanistan’s future.  It therefore appears certain that the role Russia could play in achieving a “negotiated settlement” over Afghanistan will also be a topic of the Deauville conversation.

The clandestine operation that led to bin Laden’s killing will undoubtedly become a crowning achievement of the CIA Director, Leon Panetta.  Almost everyone in Washington agrees that Panetta’s two-year tenure at the agency was largely a success, albeit limited to improving the morale of the CIA cadre and facilitating intelligence sharing between different security entities.  Panetta’s critics would argue that he failed to reform the agency to make it better handle the new security threats facing the country.  But who would listen to the critics now?

Besides, the time to criticize Panetta's role as CIA Director is up — President Obama has tapped him to replace Robert Gates as the new secretary of defense, and there is little doubt that, given the recent developments, Panetta will breeze through his Senate confirmation.

At first glance, Russia need not pay much attention to this personnel change.  Panetta’s limited experience in national security issues notwithstanding, he’s a savvy Washington insider and capable bureaucrat.  More importantly, Panetta is an experienced budget manager and because of that, President Obama picked him to shepherd through the Congress the huge cut in military spending ($400 billion over the next 12 years) that Obama included in his deficit-reduction plan.

If anything, Russia can only welcome any reduction in U.S. military spending, however, Moscow may come to regret Gates’ departure.  For more than two years, Gates — a Republican who served under President George W. Bush – has been Obama’s national security “cover,” giving him credibility with the Republicans in Congress.  Gates was indispensable in “selling” to the Senate Republicans the New START treaty; there is every reason to believe that a number of GOP Senators eventually voted for the treaty only after personal assurances by Gates that the treaty was beneficial for the U.S. national interests.

Although well respected, Panetta enjoys no such credibility with Capitol Hill Republicans.  With him at the helm of the Pentagon, Obama will have no helping hand with the Republicans should any arms control agreement with Russia reach the Senate.

Moscow should also carefully follow the rise of the liberal interventionist “wing” of the Obama foreign policy team.  It was widely reported in the U.S. media that the president’s decision to join military action in Libya was strongly lobbied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Susan Rice and National Security Council official Samantha Power, who persuaded Obama that it was a moral obligation of the United States to intervene in what they called an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi.  Curiously, Obama made this decision over objections of his Vice President Joe Biden and Gates, both known as foreign policy “realists.” 

If Obama gets re-elected – as it’s looking increasingly likely – and Clinton retires in 2012, as she promised, Rice will become a natural choice to become the next secretary of state.  And Powel will have a decent chance to move into Rice's chair at the United Nations.  Should this happen, military interventions to fulfill vaguely defined moral imperatives may become a new modus operandi of the Obama administration.

It’s only a question of time before such a “value-based” U.S. foreign policy causes a new chill in U.S.-Russia relations.     

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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3 Responses to Personnel Matters

  1. Luis Alcalá says:

    I believe that the big geostrategic movements are like big waves on which something of froth is, the American presidents are the froth but the important thing is the big wave.
    As Eisenhower was saying, USA it has turned into an industrial military conglomerate and no president can already dismantle it, Nixon reduced the military budget and cost him the position.
    The interests of the United States are clear and fundamentally there are the energy sources, in Libya there is oil and he try to take the control, in Yemen there is no oil and he is not taken control. In Bahrein, where the American fleet has his base, it has stopped to those who protest killing them and it does not seem to import to nobody. The shield antimissile continues his march in Romania and in Poland, in spite of the protests of Russia.
    It can be that Obama has an exterior face more agreeable than Bush, but nothing fundamental has changed.
    Nevertheless something important is changing in the Moslem countries and it seems that USA does not know how to react. And not alone USA, Russia does not seem to have a clear politics, for example in Siria.
    A reduction of the military budget of USA would be positive not only for his deficit but for the world economic crisis of which it is one of the principal causes, although little mentioned. Let’s remember that USA spends in his army more than all the countries of the world together.

  2. Eugene Ivanov says:

    Thanks very much for your comments. I largely agree with what you’re saying. Yet, I’d be reluctant to blame Obama for the lack of “fundamental” changes. The more fundamental is a change, the more time and efforts are needed to implement it. I just don’t think that a single presidential term is enough time for such a “fundamental” change as that required to change U.S. policies in the Middle East.
    True, the Obama administration is somewhat at loss with what’s going on there — let’s wait for what Obama has to say on the subject today (tomorrow?). Russia seems to be adjusting faster. As I argued before, the American ineptness during the Arab Spring has created certain political vacuum in the NAME region, and Russia will be wise to fill it, at least partly.
    Best Regards,

  3. eugene Goom says:

    One can’t ignore the independent nature of Mrs. H.Clinton’s DOS policy’s from The White House’s.
    It would not be immature to assume that her future departure and present “neocon-ish” steps are part of a bigger skim. That is to say: she is positioning self(in case of Pr. B.Obama rating’s collapse)to step into the race,a la-Ted Kennedy vs J.Carter in 1980…

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