December 4, 2008
It was hard to miss the message that Barack Obama was sending with the powerful tableau lined up behind him onstage in Chicago. “I assembled this team because I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions,” the President-elect said of his national-security picks. The top three members of that team certainly fit the description. In Hillary Clinton, Obama is getting a Secretary of State who battled him to the bitter end of a Democratic primary season focused largely on the question of who was better equipped to be Commander in Chief. In bringing in retired Marine general James Jones as his National Security Adviser and retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama is turning to two men who might have seemed more obvious choices had John McCain won the White House. And all three were on the opposite side from Obama on the defining foreign policy decision of the past decade: whether to invade Iraq.
What Obama calls strength might sound like a formula for contentiousness or even failure, especially when you consider what happened with George W. Bush’s first foreign policy team, which had its share of big personalities too. So fraught with palace intrigue was that arrangement that then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to attend key meetings called by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for all his star power, was all but frozen out of the real decision-making—and the foreign leaders he visited knew it. And Vice President Dick Cheney was a power center unto himself. “You look at the team that George W. Bush brought in, and they also were very talented and experienced people,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It turned into a disaster because the President did a very poor job managing his staff and couldn’t resolve disputes among his people.”
The potential for disputes would seem to be even greater for Obama’s team, given how its members have disagreed with the President-elect and one another on not only the Iraq war but also a range of other policy fronts that include Iran, Afghanistan, missile defense and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Whatever their differences in the past, however, Obama insists they can work together: “They would not have agreed to join my Administration and I would not have asked them to be part of this Administration unless we shared a core vision.”
An improving situation in Iraq has helped bring about that convergence, especially between the incoming President and his future Defense Secretary. During the presidential campaign, Gates criticized Obama’s 16-month withdrawal timetable, but now that proposal doesn’t look very different from the security agreement the Bush Administration has since signed with the Baghdad government. Nor has Gates offered any resistance to Obama’s plan to install his own loyalists in the upper echelon of the Pentagon bureaucracy, which is now staffed largely by Rumsfeld holdovers. “Every new President traditionally fills civilian positions at the Department of Defense,” Gates said. “It will be no different now.”
As for the future, both Obama and Gates share a belief that there should be less emphasis on military power and more on using diplomacy and foreign aid to bend other nations toward U.S. interests. One thorny question at a time of economic crisis will be how much of the money for that reorientation will have to come from the Pentagon’s budget.
This emphasis on “soft power” would suggest an even greater role for the new Secretary of State. But while she is well known overseas, Clinton understands she will have real influence abroad only if she is seen as having it within the Obama inner circle at home. One of her demands was assurance that she would have a direct line of communication to the President whenever she felt she needed it. She has also insisted on picking her own team at the State Department, though it helps that she and Obama reportedly have agreed that her deputy should be James Steinberg, an Obama confidant who was also Deputy National Security Adviser in the Clinton White House.
The key to making all this work is most likely to be the man who is the least familiar of the triumvirate. Jones, the 6-ft. 5-in. retired general who will be the chief conduit of foreign policy advice to the new President, was the first Marine to serve as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and has an Eisenhower-like appeal to both parties. But he was not part of Obama’s circle of campaign advisers and reportedly resisted initial overtures to take the job, fearing he could get caught in the kind of infighting that Rice faced when she was Bush’s National Security Adviser. Obama promised Jones both the power and the access he needs.
Jones is known for having sharp political skills of his own, which is one reason William Cohen recruited him to be his senior military assistant when Cohen, a Republican, was Defense Secretary in the Clinton Administration. “I wanted Jim because he knew where the bodies were buried,” Cohen says. “And I wanted to make sure that mine wasn’t among them.” What could make Jones’ job easier is the fact that both Clinton and Gates respect him. Clinton knows him through her tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Gates, though he’s never worked with Jones, knows him by reputation from their years at the Pentagon. Still far from clear is what role Joe Biden will play in this delicate arrangement. It was largely on the strength of his foreign policy credentials that Obama picked him to be Vice President. And the fact that he will be close at hand in the White House means Biden will certainly have the opportunity to weigh in on important policy questions. But no one expects him to be as big a force behind the scenes as Cheney has been or to seize entire portions of the portfolio for himself.
Of all of them, Gates probably has the best sense of what lies in store. After all, Obama will be the eighth President he has served. “There will no doubt be differences among the team,” says Gates, “and it will be up to the President to make the decisions.” A powerful team can succeed, but only if everyone agrees who is in charge.