There's also the U.S. news media, which readily joins any war-fevered stampede. Obama may have calculated that his presidency would have been trampled by endless recriminations if he had fully repudiated Bush's legacy.
Getting Sucked In
But the consequences of these trade-offs have been severe. For instance, Gates wrote in his memoir Duty that he was persuaded to support an Afghan War "surge" of 30,000 troops by neocon theorist Frederick Kagan (Robert's brother and Victoria Nuland's brother-in-law). Though Obama was skeptical, the plan was backed by Petraeus (and other Bush-promoted generals) and Secretary of State Clinton. Ultimately, Obama acquiesced, to his later regret.
Arguably, there were similarities between Obama's predicament and what confronted a young President John F. Kennedy when he took office in 1961 with the "red scares" of the McCarthy era still fresh in the minds of badly scarred Democrats. Kennedy was persuaded by holdovers from the Eisenhower administration, such as CIA Director Allen Dulles and some of the Pentagon's high command, to press ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion against Cuba.
After that disaster, Kennedy ousted Dulles and developed his own informal circle of foreign policy advisers, including his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, President Kennedy relied on these close advisers to counter the pressure from senior generals to escalate this nuclear Cold War confrontation.
Kennedy appeared ready to chart a course toward greater cooperation with Soviet leaders and to disengage from Vietnam at the time of his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, though it will never be known how Kennedy would have ultimately addressed those challenges if he had won reelection in 1964.
However, after Kennedy's death, President Lyndon Johnson agreed to Pentagon calls for sending combat troops to Vietnam. The historical record shows that Johnson's decisions were influenced by his fears that otherwise Democrats would be accused of "losing" Indochina, much as Sen. Joe McCarthy and other right-wingers had accused them of "losing" China.
Despite some parallels between the Kennedy-Johnson era and the present, Obama's secretive conduct of his foreign policy -- without offering a thorough explication to the public -- may be unprecedented. While displaying a surface "tough-guy-ism" of counterterrorism, including drone strikes and Special Forces raids, such as killing Osama bin Laden, Obama has maneuvered quietly toward a slow and steady pullback from America's war footing.
To continue that process -- often in the face of belligerent rhetoric from key members of Congress and prominent U.S. pundits -- Obama has relied not only on an inner circle at the White House (buttressed by some sympathetic CIA analysts), but on cooperation from President Putin and other Russian leaders.
Not Taking Command
Though the original "team of rivals" is gone (Gates in mid-2011, Petraeus after a sex scandal in late 2012, and Clinton in early 2013), Obama still has not grabbed control of his national security apparatus. Secretary of State John Kerry often behaves as if he thinks he's President John McCain's top diplomat -- or a captive of the hawkish State Department bureaucracy, the likes of Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
For example, amid murky evidence regarding a chemical weapons attack in Syria, Kerry delivered what sounded like a declaration of war on Aug. 30, 2013, only to have Obama walk the U.S. bombing threats back over the next few weeks and finally put them to rest with the help of Putin who got the Syrian regime to agree to surrender all of its chemical weapons.
Similarly, Obama and Putin oversaw the hammering out of a framework to resolve the Iran nuclear dispute last November. Kerry was supposed to go to Geneva and sign the deal, but instead inserted some last-minute poison-pill language advocated by the French (who were carrying water for the Saudis), causing a breakdown of the talks. I'm told that White House officials then instructed Kerry to return and sign the deal, which he finally did.
But Obama's back-pocket foreign policy -- and the extra energy that such an indirect management style requires -- have allowed for some serious mischief-making by neocons in the government and their sympathizers in the media, especially in areas of the world where Obama has not directed his personal attention.
The crisis in Ukraine apparently caught the President off-guard, even though elements of the U.S. government were stoking the fires of political unrest on Russia's border. Assistant Secretary Nuland was openly advocating for Ukraine's "European aspirations" and literally passing out cookies to anti-government protesters.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (essentially a three-decade-old neocon-controlled slush fund that pours money into "democracy building" or destabilization campaigns depending on your point of view), was running 65 projects in Ukraine. Last September, NED's president Carl Gershman called Ukraine "the biggest prize" and expressed hope that "Putin may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself."