It's that time again. No, I don't mean baseball season, or the arrival (finally) of spring in New England. I mean it's turnover time down in Washington, and we are seeing the usual speculations about who's up, who's down, who's in, and who's out. Everyone expects Robert Gates to leave Defense this summer, James Steinberg is leaving the #2 job at State, several East Asia hands have left or are leaving, and there will be additional departures from the NSC and other key positions.
Speculating about who is likely to replace the departing officials is a time-honored inside-the-Beltway tradition, and it's a popular sport at places like the Kennedy School too. For some informed speculation on possible new faces, check out FP's The Cable here and the New York Times here.
But I don't think these changes are going to make much difference. It's not like Obama will be replacing the current set of officials with people who have a fundamentally different perspective on foreign and defense policy. Instead, the likely successors in each of these jobs will be drawn from the same pool of familiar foreign policy gurus, chosen from the ranks of traditional Democratic party liberal imperialists. . . . (oops....I meant "liberal internationalists.") I don't expect to see any realists in prominent positions, and certainly no one who favors a major curtailing of America's self-ordained role as global policeman.
This tells you either that Obama is reasonably happy with his administration's handling of foreign policy, or (more likely) it tells you that he doesn't have a lot of options. In an ideal world, we would see Obama do a ruthless evaluative exercise, and get rid of the people who have performed poorly while doing his best to retain those who have done well. By this standard, he'd be keeping his Asia team (which has done tolerably well with a difficult situation), giving the nuclear security team a pat on the back, firing the whole Middle East group (whose performance has to be among his biggest disappointments), and he'd be taking a long, hard look at the people who've been marching him deeper into the Af-Pak quagmire.
But I don't expect anything like that to occur. By now, it is crashingly obvious that Obama is a very conventional foreign policy president, that whatever novel ideas or approaches he brought to office have been thoroughly diluted by entrenched interests in Washington, and his own governing style militates against taking bold positions and sticking with them in the face of opposition. Just look at how he caved on Gitmo, indefinite detention, drone strikes/targeted killings, or Israeli settlements. One gets the impression that the administration is already suffering from battle-fatigue, and that there won't be many (any?) shiny new initiatives even if he wins a second term.
To be sure, there's something to be said for modesty (especially if the alternative is the riverboat gambler approach that Bush and the neocons pursued from 2001-2005), but it isn't quite the change that some of us believed in.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.