Roger Cohen's column today, where he expresses doubt about Obama's choices for his foreign policy team and in particular the lack or responsibility given to Clinton, provides a good excuse to discuss some thoughts on foreign policy.
First, it's a good example of the militarization of our foreign policy. All of our big immediate challenges have been entrusted to generals, even in issues like terrorism where this wasn't the immediately logical choice (though putting the policy in the hands of the intelligence agencies wouldnt' have helped Clinton, but compare SE Asia to where our policy is run by the generals). Foreign policy should be entrusted to civilian officials, mostly State but to some degree intelligence, with the military receiving third priority except where an actual political regime is the threat. That hasn't been the case this decade, the military would have been more appropriate in a supporting role rather than as the lead.
The second thing that comes to mind is that while Clinton isn't getting to work on the media grabbing stuff, she's the one actually focusing on the important stuff. Foreign policy is a long game, the aspects that attract the public's attention are usually of marginal long term importance (unless we blunder and give them importance due to our over-investment). To be blunt, what Cohen calls the big issues, "Afghanistan, Iran, Israel-Palestine and Iraq," aren't really of long term significance, with the exception of Iran. The mid-east is important to us because of oil dependency but this is a domestic problem, we're simply using our foreign policy to avoid the day of reckoning. We have the technology we need to reduce our oil dependency down to levels that won't require a heavy commitment to the mid-east if we invest in infrastructure to make this happen. If we don't need to be in the mid-east most of these issues can drop off our radar. Of course, public opinion won't allow them to drop off entirely but there is a big difference between the kind of brush fire fighting actions we'll need to take to satisfy the public and serious long term strategic threats to our prosperity.
Iran of course is a dissatisfied power, and while it won't ever be a super-power, it does have the population and resources to be a significant player on the world stage. At some point we're going to have to address this seriously, we can't keep them marginalized forever. I'd prefer to see State take the lead on this but until the public is ready to allow us to renew full diplomatic relations that's off the table.
The big issues are Russia, Turkey, and East Asia (our relationship with South America and Europe remains secure enough to not warrant separate discussion). Here Clinton's had plenty of influence. Nagorno-Karabakh isn't a side show, it's essential to ensuring long term gas supplies to Europe through the Caspian Sea and showing Turkey that we are prominent players in the region. Turkey is also a key relationship, it gives the entire Muslim world an alternate path of development to counter problems we've been having in the Arab world (SE Asia also fills this role but is probably historically too marginal to have the global role Turkey can, though Indonesia has lots of potential). Israel-Palestine is a similar issue to this but even resolving that simply ends a grievance, it doesn't provide a way out for the Arab world and is less critical than Turkey taken on its merits rather than emotional potential.
Russia, and the former Soviet Block as a whole, are also a critical area and one Clinton has had more influence on. We've got a tricky game to play here, balancing the need to not push Russia too far away because of its continued military strength (read nukes) and natural resources while assuring the former Soviet Block nations that we intend to remain committed to them [Edit: This Eastern Approaches post shows exactly the kind of balancing I'm referring to]. Balancing this is going to be a challenge through at least the medium term, as the war in Georgia shows, but since it seems unlikely that Russia's demographics will allow a true resurgence of its former power we are far less likely to make a major miscalculation here. Especially if our influence in Turkey remains strong and they continue to grow Turkey will be a great counter-balance to Russia in the Caucasus, where are influence is probably shakiest, if present trends continue.
Japan, of course, is perhaps our most critical long term bilateral relationship. China is a rising power and Japan is the only other power immediate enough to truly shape that rise. This takes a qualification, China is the truly critical player but its size, and history, is such that our influence will be sharply limited. We have greater potential influence with Japan and our interests are more clearly aligned, the uncertainty of our relationship with China is what makes me think Japan is the more important overall relationship. To paraphrase a saying I've heard, it can take centuries to build a relationship and minutes to ruin it, this is less likely with Japan then China so Japan is the more critical long term partner.
To sum up, I think Cohen is right to criticize the Obama team's foreign policy but way off with his priorities. I wish I could credit Obama with sage like foresight in committing Clinton to our most critical long term relationships, instead I fear it is a result of the prioritizing of crisis management over long term strategic thought.