Obama's 'team of rivals' also has some rival ideas

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The members of the national security team that President-elect Barack Obama named Monday are all strong-willed public servants who at times have vehemently disagreed with changes he proposes to U.S. national-security policy.

His future national security adviser quite possibly voted for his opponent in the presidential election. His future secretary of state said the United States should consider the "obliteration" of Iran, where Obama has advocated talks without preconditions. His future defense secretary directed the military's surge of additional U.S. forces into Iraq, which Obama opposed.

Despite those past differences, what matters is how their views might change now that they're part of an administration led by Obama and insulated from domestic politics.

Will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embrace his call for talking to Iran? Will Secretary of Defense Robert Gates back Obama's plan to withdraw from Iraq? Will National Security Adviser and retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, a former military commander of NATO, embrace Obama's call to engage with Russia?

Obama named the three Monday along with Eric Holder as attorney general, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state, as United Nations ambassador. The president-elect has yet to name a new CIA director.

Despite Obama's campaign promise of change, Clinton, Gates and Jones pride themselves on being career public servants, not visionaries. Introducing them Monday, Obama said they'd bring a "vigorous debate" to the White House, and that he'd bring the change.

"They operate within a familiar, centrist framework," said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University. "But they have not been willing to ask fundamental questions about national security. . . . The vision will come from the president."

Obama has said that under his administration, national security will be less dependent on military prowess and more on diplomacy. He's called for more money for the State Department and foreign aid. He's said he wants to draw down troops in Iraq to make a bigger push in Afghanistan. Where the Bush administration has resisted high-level direct talks with Iran and Syria, Obama has called for more dialogue.

Despite serving under the Bush administration, Gates has been a maverick. He's endorsed boosting the State Department budget and has said the "long war" on terrorism is in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

Despite that, the leaders of Obama's national security team not only have disagreed publicly with the president-elect but they've also disagreed with one another.

Until now, domestic and partisan political considerations largely have shaped Clinton's foreign-policy views, but as secretary of state, those considerations should be irrelevant.

"She's been hawkish on a number of issues not because she's hawkish but because she was trying to prove that she isn't soft on defense," said one congressional staffer who's familiar with her work on the Senate Armed Services Committee and who refused to be identified in discussing her. "I wouldn't assume anything now."

Clinton and Obama have disagreed most notably on Iran. During the presidential campaign, she called his willingness to talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions naive. When she said that she'd "obliterate" Iran as president if it attacked Israel, Obama likened her to President George W. Bush.

Gates served on the Iraq Study Group in 2006, which called for talks with Iran and Syria.

Jones, who's a close friend of John McCain, the defeated Republican presidential contender, has said that more resources are needed in Afghanistan. Gates has pleaded with U.S. allies to send more troops. Gates, Clinton and Obama have called for linking U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, saying that one can't be solved without the other.

However, Clinton criticized Obama for his call for unilateral action against targets in Pakistan if necessary.

The president-elect and his secretary of defense disagree on missile defense. As Bush's defense secretary, Gates, a former Soviet expert during his long tenure as an analyst at the CIA, has made several trips to Russia and Eastern Europe advocating a ballistic missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, drawing the ire of Russians. Obama is likely to pull back on the Bush administration's push for such a system.

However, both have said that the United States should engage more with Russia.

There also have been differences on Iraq. Jones opposed a timetable for withdrawal as Obama campaigned for a 16-month plan. Obama opposed the surge strategy, which Gates backed.

Despite those differences, observers said that collectively they represent a strong national security team.

"I think they represent a team of professionals," said retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the counterinsurgency manual with Gen. David Petraeus, the current head of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries. "These are not ideologues, people with a preconceived notion of ideas. I think this is a return to realism."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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