Global Water Cooler: Obama’s Foreign Policy Team

Global Watercooler

 Talk around the Global Watercooler on Sundays–at least among the internationally minded Washington set–revolves around what is typically the best edition of the Washington Post all week. This week’s was no exception.


The last thing you want when you enter one of those landmark years in history, which 2011 is likely to be, is a rebuilding year for your foreign policy team. However, that’s exactly what President Obama has got.  David Ignatius handicaps the situation under the headline “Obama’s weakened team.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is likely to leave this summer. If so, the smart money in Washington is currently on CIA director Leon Panetta to replace him.  He’ll have a thankless job of cost-cutting and getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan–while managing Libya and the Mideast. It won’t be easy to follow a man Ignatius calls “one of the most effective defense secretaries in recent decades.” Some would say, “in history.”

Panetta would be one of the few people who could pull this off, but there are two big questions. Does he want to do it? Second, it would be such a shame to pull away a CIA director who has done so much to restore morale at Langley.  Ignatius puts his chips on General David Petraeus as Panetta’s successor at the CIA.  No one knows more about CIA operations and challenges in places like Afghanistan. For Obama, it must be attractive to keep the politically talented Petraeus out of 2012 presidential campaign.  (The Washington buzz is all about his suitability as someone’s VP.)

Ignatius picks James Cartwright, who is known in the White House as “Obama’s favorite General,” as the likely replacement for Admiral Mike Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.   If he is right about all these replacements, then the Post got the headline wrong.  It isn’t a weaker team. It’s pretty damn strong. But changes at such crucial moments are always difficult.


We’ve been hearing reports at the Atlantic Council for months already about important military gains on the ground in Afghanistan that are now starting to make it more prominently into major newspapers. The Post leads its Sunday page one with detailed reports from southern Afghanistan of real progress as a result of the Petraeus troop surge.

Though there is reason for skepticism about whether these gains can hold up, this is nevertheless good news as a new fighting season begins.  Petraeus’ people have been logging this progress for some time, but have withheld some of the information until they saw clearer trend lines. Now Petraeus seems willing to brief reporters on the security improvements.

Writes Rajiv Chandrasekaran, after an interview with the general: “For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.”

Everyone knows that military power alone won’t win this war, so now the question is whether these gains can be translated into more fruitful negotiations, a better transition to Afghan rule or broader regional security arrangements. Positive here was the weekend meeting of Pakistani and Afghan leaders.


The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker,” often my favorite feature in the paper, concludes President Obama is wrong when he speaks of his proposed budget cuts as the largest in history.

If measured by the sheer number of $38.5 million, he is right. However, he doesn’t come even close if one is measuring the cuts according to the percentage of the current budget. The Cato Institute reports that larer budget cuts on a percentage basis have occurred in 18 of the past 110 years.

Fred Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. His latest book, Berlin 1961, will be available May 10.

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