Big Personalities Join Obama Foreign-Policy Team

Created: December 01, 2008 14:30 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/jones-clinton-gates.jpgPresident-elect Barack Obama's nominees include James Jones for national security adviser, Hillary Clinton for secretary of state and Robert Gates for secretary of defense. (WDCpix and Wikimedia Commons)

In 1936, the Republican Party nominated for vice president an uncompromising critic of the New Deal named Frank Knox. A veteran of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Knox attained prominence as a Chicago newspaperman, branding Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic agenda “alien and un-American” and repeatedly proclaiming its failure.

Four years later, knowing Knox’s prestige among the GOP faithful and mindful of the need for national unity as Europe fell to the Nazis, President Roosevelt made Knox, who agreed with Roosevelt on the scope of the German threat, his secretary of the Navy.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

It was possible to look this morning at President-elect Barack Obama’s national-security team and see the ghost of Knox. Obama’s choice for secretary of defense, Bob Gates, is George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, making Gates the first-ever cabinet secretary to carry over from an administration of the opposing political party. His choice for national security adviser, Jim Jones, was until February of last year a four-star Marine general and NATO commander who commanded widespread Washington respect. And his choice for secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was his chief rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yet at his press conference Monday morning, Obama made clear that he’ll be the one setting the parameters of the national-security debate in his administration. Reiterating his agenda, he emphasized his goal of pulling combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months, refocusing on the fight against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, strengthening international institutions and recalibrating the balance between civilian and military components of the national-security apparatus. “I will be setting policy, [and will be] responsible for presenting the vision [that]… this team will implement,” Obama said.

The interplay between the outsized personalities on Obama’s national-security team and Obama’s ability to set the agenda looks likely to be a key undercurrent of the new president’s entry onto the global stage — as does the domestic politics of his appointments.

“I don’t think there has been a stronger foreign policy team or one composed of more established, leading players in the national security community since the Second World War,” said David Rothkopf, a scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace and author of “Running The World,” a history of the National Security Council. “This is precisely the kind of group that is called for in times as rife with challenges as ours. They are sound, pragmatic, realistic and willing to advance a common vision. I really don’t think we could do better.”

The group earned early praise from progressives as well, particularly given Obama’s focus on progressive goals for the Middle East like “responsibly ending the war in Iraq,” “preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran… [and] seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” Progressive Democratic political consultant Matt Stoller said secretary-designate Clinton’s “challenge is Israel and Palestine. Her success is tied to that situation.”

Taylor Marsh, a political analyst, today praised both Clinton’s nomination and what it said about Obama. “Hillary Clinton as secretary of state foreshadows opportunity for Obama, especially in the Middle East and with Iran; by picking a tough advocate who can pave the way for the change, he obviously intends to bring through his diplomatic muscle,” Marsh said. “Some on the left are talking about Obama appointing a hawkish national-security team, but the people he’s chosen reveal just what a tough commander in chief he intends to be. No daylight for dovish talk when Obama begins to redeploy from Iraq.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, a top domestic-policy aide to President Bill Clinton and executive director of the progressive American Jewish lobby J Street, was enthused by Obama’s picks. “The national security team announced today by President-elect Obama brings in-depth understanding of and hands-on experience in what it takes to achieve security through peace in the Middle East,” Ben-Ami said. “Now it’s up to the president-elect to give this team the green light to pursue active diplomacy from day one of the new administration. They can rest assured that the overwhelming majority of the Amercan Jewish community will stand with them in their active pursuit of a diplomatic end to Middle East conflicts.”

Whether and how such green lights will be communicated represents a test for Obama’s approach to governing. Both he and Vice President-elect Joe Biden emphasized repeatedly at the press conference that a requirement for inclusion on the team was broad acquiescence to the Obama agenda. Obama proclaimed himself “responsible for presenting the vision” that the team “will implement.” The foreign-policy aspect of his presidency largely depends on whether he’s strong enough as an executive to maintain the cohesion that he promised.

In several policy areas, Obama appeared to have chosen his course — with Iraq foremost among them. On Friday, the neoconservative commenter Max Boot boasted that the appointment of Gates and Jones “all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.” Instead, Obama explicitly said that he still intends to withdraw combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, though he will “will listen to the recommendations of [military] commanders.” He praised the recently passed status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government — which demands U.S. military withdrawal from Iraqi towns and cities by June 2009 and full U.S. withdrawal by December 2011 — as providing “a glide path” out of Iraq. And he introduced Gates by stating that he “will be giving Secretary Gates and our military a new mission as soon as I take office: responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control.” In other words, Gates, a key proponent of the 2007 troop surge that Obama opposed, will have the opportunity to shape how the U.S. exits Iraq but not to litigate whether the U.S. ought to stay.

Still, Boot’s comments highlight a dilemma that Obama’s appointments pose to conservatives. Neither Gates nor Jones would have accepted Obama’s invitations had they been out of step with his strategic goals. With so much of the conservative approach to foreign policy having been implemented by the Bush administration to disastrous consequences, Gates’ Pentagon success — represented most significantly by the reduction in violence in Iraq under his watch — has been a rare point of GOP pride, as Sen. John McCain pointed out during the campaign. Yet now that Gates and Jones have signed on to the Obama agenda — as have many so-called foreign-policy realists who used to operate in the Republican orbit — the Obama administration has absorbed the viable strains of foreign-policy thinking that haven’t been proven inadequate by recent events or politically repudiated. Conservatives, and particularly the congressional GOP, face the difficult political choice of acquiescing to an emerging progressive foreign-policy consensus or opposing it by championing failed policies that voters in 2006 and 2008 overwhelmingly rejected.

Brandon Friedman, a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, summed up his take on the emerging Obama administration by remembering Dick Cheney’s promise to U.S. troops at the 2000 Republican National Convention. Cheney, blasting the Clinton administration’s defense policies, said the arrival of George W. Bush in the White House would mean “our men and women in uniform will once again have a commander in chief they can respect, one who understands their mission and restores their morale.”

“The difference between August 2000 and December 2008,” said Friedman, a member of the veterans’ organization VoteVets, “is that if we said the same thing today about the current and incoming administrations, it would actually be true.”