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In picking controversial candidates to run the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, US President Barack Obama has signalled the political will to risk a bruising battle with the Senate. And then some. Obama seeks to reorient the US national security policy at a moment when America is exhausted from two costly wars, struggling to cope with an extended financial crisis and finds its long- standing global primacy challenged by China's rise. Unencumbered by the imperative of re-election and buoyed by the disarray in the ranks of the Republican Party, Obama now has a rare opportunity to reframe the fundamentals of America's global engagement.
Earlier when his first choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, ran into opposition from the Republicans, Obama quickly pulled back. This time around, he stood his ground despite the intense opposition — among both Republicans and Democrats — to his nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defence. Criticism, albeit less intense, has also been directed at Obama's choice of John O. Brennan as the next director of the CIA. Together with his decision to pick Senator John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as America's top diplomat, Obama has now presented the leadership of his national security policy for the second term.
The new team fully reflects Obama's worldview that might be described as liberal realism. Kerry, hailing from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, underlines Obama's preference for multilateralism in addressing current global challenges. Brennan reflects Obama's pragmatism in toning down George W. Bush's crusading rhetoric against the "axis of evil". As the counter-terrorism adviser to Obama in the last four years, Brennan has led the quiet shift in US strategy towards the use of Special Forces and covert operations. Hagel, a former Republican senator, fully shares Obama's conviction that going to war must be America's last resort, not the first. He has opposed the use of military force against Iran and questioned America's uncritical support for Israel. Hagel's contestation of Washington's foreign policy orthodoxy has earned him wrath on both ends of the establishment — those on the Republican right demanding a muscular foreign policy and the interventionists on the Democratic left who think American power could be deployed for good. As Obama pares down the bloated American foreign policy agenda of the last two decades, the rest of the world too must prepare to discard the several traditional presumptions about America's international role.
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