The authority to formulate the US foreign policy ultimately rests with the US President on major issues. He takes decisions relying on options prepared and debated by senior officials and experts from respective departments and agencies when they meet within the National Security Council (NSC). In these meetings, senior presidential advisers join top officials from the departments of State and Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other government agencies. The NSC is where options for all major foreign policy issues, especially if they are at a crisis stage, are shaped. The list of crises debated within and acted upon by the president using the NSC entire membership or a partial team from there includes the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s all the way to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003, and the Arab Spring of 2011-2012.
Obama’s foreign policy is ostensibly driven by two principles he enunciated in 2009; maintaining US global supremacy while building international coalitions to address global challenges such as climate change, terrorism and economic stability. The substance of these policies, Obama maintained, is guided by the principles of spreading democracy and supporting freedom of speech and religion. However, worried about the democracy promotion strategies of his predecessor, he stressed that the US would serve these values by example, unlike the previous administration attempt at exporting democracy.
The Secretary of State, supported by career diplomats and political appointees, is the top foreign policy official in the country after the president. In Obama’s administration, Secretary Hillary Clinton had a major influence over foreign policy making compared to National Security adviser Tom Donilon, who was replaced in the spring of 2013 by US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
The Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) are members of the NSC and it is them who focus more on national security in as far as military assets can be brought to bear on foreign policy issues. The ongoing war on terror and its global landscape has given the Pentagon a larger substantive role to play in formulating foreign policy since 2001. The Middle East, besides being one of the main theatres for the ongoing war on terror, is also a place where tens of thousands of American soldiers are deployed and where security arrangement, bases, and over-flight rights, are significant for US global power projection.
The Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) takes part in principles’ meetings to discuss policy making especially during crises. The US intelligence community has been playing a larger role in foreign policy to the dismay of the State Department through the 20-year old war on terror, and especially since 2003 with covert operations and drone programs targeting alleged terrorists all managed by the CIA. However, the CIA has come under increasing criticism for a widely held perception that it failed to perform its main task of information gathering and accurately estimating threats in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003 and then failing to predict much of the 2011 Arab Spring.
The US Congress does not often shape foreign policy during crises, though the president keeps its leaders informed, unless war needs to be formally declared and additional funds are requested. Under the US Constitution, the Congress shares almost all powers with the president, but in practice, it exercises this power through budget appropriations including foreign aid, defense spending, and treaty ratification. It is this authority that made the Egyptian current government, for example, contract Glover Park, a DC lobbyist to work on its behalf in Washington circles as the administration decided to cut down military aid in reaction to the army intervening to depose elected president Morsi following massive protests against him and the Muslim Brotherhood. Several congressional delegations came to Egypt in the past few weeks, some of them to show support for the current interim government including tea party republicans, who are known for anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Other organizations and institutional actors influence the US foreign policy making process including advocacy NGOs, policy think tanks, the business community and lobbyists (groups and individuals). They all have an impact on foreign policy by directly working with the executive or legislative branches or through the mass media.
The oil, Israel and the arms manufacturers’ lobbies in Washington DC are strong actors in shaping the US foreign policy in the Middle East, followed by human rights organizations and other advocacy groups. Think tanks such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the Brookings Institutions, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, are often joined by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Human Rights First in advocating policy recommendations with US government officials.
The White House is the ultimate actor and the main channel respectively where the US foreign policy takes final shape in times of crises. All actors mentioned above interact heavily during crises. In most of 2011, Secretary Clinton went to the White house almost every day to meet with Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Donilon, according to Kim Ghattas, BBC State Department correspondent who penned a best seller on Clinton.
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Walter Russle Mead believes that there are four distinct impulses that shape the US foreign policy in general. These four broad groups of motivations and objectives, named after four famous US presidents, have contrasting but also overlapping elements. The Hamilitonians focus on the “nation’s need to be integrated into the global economy on favorable terms”, while the Wilsonians believe the US has a moral obligation and a national interest “in spreading American democratic and social values throughout the world.” The Jeffersonians oppose the former two schools and believe the US should guard such values of freedom and democracy mainly at home. They claim that the Hamiltonian drive to integrate into the global economy or the Wilsonian objective of making the world like us end up involving the US “with unsavory allies abroad or increase the risk of war”. Finally, the Jacksonians take the “physical security and the economic well-being of the American people” as the paramount goal of both domestic and foreign policy and are rather aggressive with military and foreign intervention if it serves these objectives.
Many commentators and academics, on the other hand, prefer to refer to ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ camps when they explain US foreign policy, with the former focused on strategic economic and security interests and the latter more concerned with values and principles of democracy and civil rights. In actual practice, the lines are almost always blurred, though the view that the ideals are completely instrumentalised in favour of realist goals is impossible to prove and analytically non-useful.
While the Pentagon and the CIA are more often than not in the realist camp while the State Department and the Congress are more amenable to the idealist camp. The White house and Obama lies in the middle of this vortex.
*Khaled Mansour is an Egyptian writer who worked for over 20 years in the USA, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa both as a journalist and as a United Nations official. He now lives and works in Cairo.