Obama's new foreign-policy and security team: Could Colin Powell be on it?

With President Obama likely to begin his second term with a sharp domestic focus, he’ll need a trusted foreign-policy and security team to handle sensitive, and pressing, global challenges.

Jim Young/Reuters/File
President Obama meets with former Secretary of State Colin Powell (l.) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington in this file photograph.

Barack Obama’s reelection was barely sealed before some international voices began trumpeting how the president’s victory would mean a renewed American focus on foreign-policy issues that have languished during the campaign.

President Obama could now revive the search for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, international Middle East envoy Tony Blair said. The United States will be bolder now in pressing for a resolution of Syria’s deadly and dangerous civil war, some US allies, including Turkish officials, predicted.

Have these foreign friends heard of the “fiscal cliff”?

Obama will no doubt be looking broadly to bolster his legacy, and that will include his stewardship of America’s role in the world. But after an election in which – according to exit polls – foreign policy barely registered as a priority and a campaign in which Obama spoke frequently of a need for “nation-building here at home,” it seems likely that domestic issues such as America’s fiscal health, job creation, taxation, and even immigration reform will dominate the president’s attention.

“The president laid out his agenda in his victory speech, when he talked about priorities like continuing the economic recovery, avoiding the fiscal cliff, and getting people back to work; so he made it clear he’ll be investing his political capital in those kinds of domestic battles,” says Mark Siegel, a former deputy assistant to the president in the Carter White House who is now a partner at Locke Lord Strategies in Washington.

“I just don’t see him pushing any new initiative in terms of Middle East peace, not right away,” he adds. “And he certainly won’t be launching any kind of military involvement in Syria or Iran.”  

Some presidents' second terms have had a sharper foreign policy tilt than their first, but the dense domestic agenda suggests that Obama’s case could be the reverse, at least initially. Obama launched an ambitious Middle East initiative his first week in office, and delivered a series of big-themed speeches in foreign capitals in his first six months.

The out-of-the-blocks domestic focus, coupled with the departure of at least one top cabinet member handling foreign policy, means Obama will need to put in place in relatively short order a foreign-policy and national security team that he can rely on.

That team is expected to have some big shoes to fill.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has long said she would step down at the end of Obama’s first term, although recently she has said she would be willing to stay on board – perhaps for a couple of months – until a replacement is confirmed.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has not spoken publicly of any plans to leave his post. But Pentagon watchers note that Secretary Panetta spends almost every weekend at his home in California, and they speculate that he may decide to step down at some point next year.

The departure of Secretary Clinton and, potentially, Panetta could set in motion a game of musical chairs in the administration, with perhaps a new face or two joining some familiar administration faces for a reshuffling of foreign-policy and national security assignments.

At the top of the list for secretary of State is Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, who has served as something of an unofficial White House envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and who shares Obama’s interest in addressing nuclear proliferation.

Another high-ranking candidate is Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who was also a key adviser on candidate Obama’s 2008 foreign-policy team. Ms. Rice’s star may have fallen after her defense of the administration’s handling of the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack on Sunday news programs enraged congressional Republicans.

Also considered a possible Obama pick for secretary of State is Tom Donilon, currently the president’s national security adviser. If Mr. Donilon were to be sent to the State Department, most observers believe Obama would move up his current deputy national security adviser, longtime Obama foreign-policy adviser Denis McDonough.

Were Panetta to decide to step down, Obama could make history by naming the first woman as secretary of Defense – Michèle Flournoy, a respected defense policy expert who has already occupied the Pentagon’s No. 3 job, and who served as an adviser to the Obama campaign.

Besides Ms. Flournoy, speculation falls on Ashton Carter, currently Panetta’s chief deputy.

All are trusted individuals who either serve or have served Obama in some foreign policy or national security capacity, and many analysts believe that the White House’s overall focus on domestic issues will dictate naming a new team from an already tried-and-trusted pool of advisers.

But some experts suggest Obama may want to bring on board a fresh face – especially one that would signal to Congress an interest in putting a bipartisan stamp on defense and US foreign policy. That has led some analysts to speculate that former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel or Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s first secretary of State and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, could be named to head the Pentagon.

Mr. Powell, a Republican, prominently supported Obama for both election and reelection.

If Obama really wanted to extend a hand across the congressional aisle, some analysts say, he might consider handing the secretary of State job to Richard Lugar, the moderate Republican senator and foreign-policy specialist who was defeated in Indiana’s Republican primary this year.

Naming Senator Lugar, an arms control and nonproliferation expert, would signal Obama’s determination to make progress on those two issues.

Mr. Hagel was already an Obama supporter in 2008, and was considered for a cabinet post in the first term, Mr. Siegel notes. But he adds that naming Lugar, who is still serving until the new Senate convenes, “would really be a bipartisan signal from the president.”

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