President Obama, take two

This week began with the second inauguration of Barack Obama here in the US, and with a series of air strikes–likely carried out by American drones–in Yemen. In fact, there have been six or seven strikes within the last week, though the exact number of resultant casualties is unknown. Along with these “kinetic” events, recent weeks have featured another kind of activity from President Obama. Mr. Obama has announced his nominations for CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. If things go according to plan, John O. Brennan–who has been Obama’s chief counter-terrorism advisor and is generally thought to be the most important man in Washington for Yemen policy–will take over the CIA, and Chuck Hagel will head to the Pentagon. Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, John Kerry, breezed through confirmation hearings yesteday.

Mr. Kerry said during his hearings that he wants to see a demilitarization of US foreign policy, that “we cannot afford a diplomacy that is defined by troops or drones or confrontation.” I couldn’t agree more, as any reader of this blog knows. I wish Mr. Kerry the best, and I do expect that he’ll try to redirect this country’s foreign policy priorities to some extent. But it’ll be an uphill battle, especially when it comes to Yemen. Within his own department, the rising trend of the fortress embassy (exemplified by the growing “Green Zone” around the embassy in San‘a) is a major hindrance to this objective. And Kerry will have to claw back control of the Yemen portfolio from the NSC, DoD, and CIA , if he even wants it. While I’d love to see him really shake things up at State, I don’t know that Kerry is willing to take the kind of risks that might disqualify him from higher office in the future.

Gregory Johnsen and Micah Zenko, among others, have made the case against John Brennan as CIA director (and indeed, against John Brennan as decent human being), based in large part on his handling of America’s war in Yemen. There are others who argue in Brennan’s favor. Some say he has worked within the president’s CT team to limit the use of targeted killings, and that he will work to demilitarize the CIA. Joshua Foust gives Brennan the benefit of the doubt on that issue and explains the choices Brennan will face at CIA in this brief piece.

Chuck Hagel will be, if confirmed, the first former enlisted soldier to serve as Secretary of Defense. As a young man at war in Vietnam, he was wounded and decorated multiple times. Critics in congress see Hagel as not hawkish enough to lead the country’s military. Hagel himself says that he is not a pacifist, but will do anything in his power to avoid involving America in a new ground war. This conviction sounds like a pretty good fit with Obama’s idea of war; this administration favors a “small footprint” in foreign operations, hence the focus on air power and cooperation with local forces in Yemen.

It’s doubtful that any of these men will push the Obama Administration toward any major changes in its policy toward Yemen if status quo is what the president has in mind. It is possible, however, that Mr. Obama himself is interested in trying a new strategy in Yemen and elsewhere.  His administration is notoriously opaque, so if he and his team are planning to significantly change their approach to certain foreign policy challenges, the public shouldn’t expect to hear it from the president until such plans have been implemented and appear to be bearing fruit.