On Feb. 20, 2008, Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel found themselves standing on a remote and snowbound mountain road in the vast wilderness of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. They had been flying back from an army outpost to Bagram Air Base when a snowstorm forced their helicopter to make an emergency landing. Their lives were never in danger; but three or four hours would elapse, and night would fall, before a convoy from Bagram could reach the group and ferry them back to safety. Naturally, one wonders what these three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said to one another while awaiting rescue. I recently learned the answer.
After a heartwarming anecdote about how Grandpa Al survived the Donora Blizzard of 1938, Biden said, "Some day soon, I'm going to be vice president, you're going to be secretary of state, and you're going to be secretary of defense -- and we're going to show that bright and clean and nice-looking black guy how to run the world."
Okay, that part I haven't been able to corroborate yet, but the rest of the story has been the subject of news accounts. Hagel told me about the trip in a 2009 conversation. He also told me that he and Biden had traveled all over the world together, that nobody knew national security like Biden did and that the vice president was dead right about the futility of an ambitious counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Oh, and on the 2008 trip, which had also included India and Pakistan, Biden and Kerry had concluded that the United States had to make a large-scale aid commitment to Pakistan -- the origin of the legislation ultimately known as Kerry-Lugar-Berman.
With Kerry now confirmed as secretary of state, and Hagel now undergoing a ritual scourging which will almost certainly lead to confirmation as secretary of defense, Barack Obama's national security team will be lead by an old boys club whose members have traveled, advised, and pooled ideas with each other for years. The fourth member of the club, national security advisor Tom Donilon, said to me a few years back that he could hardly remember a time when he didn't know Biden. Donilon's new deputy, Antony Blinken, is Biden's former chief foreign policy aide. Biden once told me that he was one of Kerry's few good friends in the Senate, and saw himself as Kerry's "interlocutor" with the White House.
I always thought that the "team of rivals" imagery from 2009 was way overdone, but it's true that none of the senior figures knew one another well, and Obama had to deputize Biden to smooth friction among them. That's over; now the national security team looks like a golfing foursome.
Does it matter? In another interview, in 2011, Hagel told me that Kerry, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "bolstered Joe Biden's global view of strategic issues and international affairs." Hagel's point was that Biden very much needed the help, since the people then closest to President Obama -- David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel -- knew very little about the world. Strategic thinking had been missing from the White House, Hagel said, since the administration of the first George Bush. Hagel was hardly the only person to complain that foreign policy in Obama's first term was driven by political calculation and ad hoc reactions. It's reasonable to hope that the execution of foreign policy in Obama II will be less reactive and more consistent.
But what about the content? The first thing that needs to be said is that the identity and views of Obama's chief advisors will not change the president's obvious wish to narrow the scope of American foreign policy: to withdraw from existing military entanglements and avoid new ones, so as to save his political capital for the epochal battles to come over taxes, entitlements, immigration, and gun control. And it's hard to believe that an increasingly confident president will choose to exercise less, rather than more, control over the formulation of national security policy. If the Afghanistan policy debate of 2009 occurred today, Obama would wrap it up much more quickly and decisively.