Scandals complicate Obama foreign policy
WASHINGTON — Barely a week after winning re-election, President Obama finds himself confronting a deepening challenge in assembling a new national security team, his task complicated by a scandal that cost him a CIA chief and raised doubts about his Afghanistan war commander.
Hard questions from Congress, potentially bitter confirmation hearings and a scandal of infidelity and inappropriate emails are shaping the fight. The White House portrayed a president focused on the economy and confident in his military and intelligence leadership, but clearly not thrilled.
When asked if the personnel troubles were an unwelcome distraction, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said: “I certainly wouldn't call it welcome.”
Obama was already expecting to have to replace his chief diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and perhaps his Defense secretary, Leon Panetta. Those two — plus Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is leaving — help shape Obama's thinking and represent him before the world.
Now Obama is without his CIA director, David Petraeus, the acclaimed general in Iraq and Afghanistan who resigned in disgrace last week over an extramarital affair.
The details of that scandal keep expanding, including the revelation on Tuesday that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, is under investigation by the Pentagon for potentially inappropriate communications with another woman in the case. That, in turn, has frozen Allen's nomination to be the next commander of U.S. European Command and the commander of NATO forces in Europe, which casts more doubt about a military leadership in which each move affects another.
“It's a hard moment for the administration,” said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. “It certainly wasn't expected, but if anything good comes out of it, they do have a chance to take a long, hard look at strategy.”
He noted that Petraeus took on such revered status for his military career that he won confirmation as CIA chief with little scrutiny.
Even beyond the surprise difficulties, Obama could have trouble with the rest of his high-stakes turnover.
When Clinton leaves, a favorite to replace her is Susan Rice, an Obama loyalist who serves as ambassador to the United Nations. She could face a bruising confirmation hearing given that she was the first face of the administration's maligned explanation of the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Rice could have a difficult time winning confirmation, although he didn't take a position.
“I'm concerned about the fact that she went on Sunday shows and said it was the product of a spontaneous uprising as opposed to a terrorist attack. Why did they wait so long to publicly ... change their position on it? I think she'd have to answer questions about that, no doubt about it.”
Some of Rice's key advocates predict Republican lawmakers would not have the inclination or the votes to try to block Obama from appointing the State Department chief he wants. Yet others expect her confirmation hearing to be contentious and are wary of picking that fight at the start of the second term.
The other top candidate for the State job is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is expected to be confirmed easily by his chamber colleagues. His departure from the Senate, though, could potentially cost Obama's party a seat by creating an opening for the man who just lost the other Senate seat, Scott Brown.
The idea of Kerry as Defense secretary, which has also been floated, is not one that he has expressed an interest in, according to people close to him.
For Obama, the post-election period was intended to focus on starting to enact the economic agenda at the core of his re-election bid. He and Congress are in the hunt for elusive compromise before Jan. 1 if they are to avoid a huge package of tax increases and spending cuts that could derail the economic recovery.
Obama is, in fact, pursuing that course. But a story involving sex, resignations, national security and congressional oversight has a way of grabbing attention.
How long Panetta will lead the Defense agency is another unknown for Obama. The Pentagon chief recently indicated a willingness to stay on for at least some of Obama's second term.