WASHINGTON — Barack Obama met Wednesday with a new national-security advisory group that includes many of former President Clinton's top advisers, saying that if he's elected president he'll return the nation "to a pragmatic tradition of American foreign policy, which has been so ably advanced by the people in this room."
With former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher and former Defense Secretary William Perry signing on to a panel already heavy with former Clinton administration officials, Obama continued to consolidate the support of Clinton loyalists after his defeat of Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Their willingness to advise Obama in his general election campaign gives him a team with decades of collective expertise and one that advised the last Democratic president during a decade of peace and prosperity.
At the same time, the Illinois senator's choices for his Senior Working Group on National Security may open him up to more criticism from Republicans that the professed "change" candidate is relying on familiar Washington insiders or that the failure of these former officials to kill or catch Osama bin Laden before the 9-11 attacks left the nation vulnerable on President Bush's watch.
"There's nothing 'new' about this group of Washington insiders," Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant said. He urged Obama to spend more time meeting with commanders in Iraq and considering the positive effects of the military troop buildup there instead of "sitting down in a room with a bunch of Washington elites, many of whom also opposed the surge."
Bill Cohen, a former Republican senator who also served as a Clinton defense secretary and isn't a member of Obama's panel, said he didn't see any downside to the panel: "They're all top-notch people, and he'll get solid advice."
Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution, a centrist research center, said that Obama's working group offered expertise but would benefit from more new voices.
"When you lead with the last two secretaries of state, you begin to have quite a feel of the old guard," O'Hanlon said. "For every seasoned veteran you also want to have some new ideas and a process that ensures the new people are not intimidated or overruled" by the veterans.
Obama and his advisers said they'd add more experts to the panel in coming months.
O'Hanlon said that Perry brought special expertise on issues such as defense technology, the use of force and nuclear proliferation. He characterized Albright's addition as "a good way to start bringing people together" and said Christopher's record was mixed because of problems on his watch in Somalia and Bosnia and with the Middle East peace talks.
Albright, Christopher and Perry join a panel that's already peopled with many former Clinton administration officials who sided with Obama during the long contested primary.
They include former Clinton National Security Adviser Tony Lake; former Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice; Greg Craig, the former director of the State Department's Office of Policy Planning; former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder; former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig; and former Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg.
Several former Democratic members of Congress also are in Obama's working groups: David Boren, former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the vice chairman of the 9-11 commission; Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Tim Roemer, a former House member and 9-11 commissioner.
Obama told the working group at the Liaison Hotel in Washington that this would be the first of a number of gatherings before the election and that they'd start with "a wind-ranging discussion about the national security challenges facing the United States," including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, poverty and disease.
"Nearly all these threats have grown over the last eight years because of the policies of George Bush, which I believe have left us less safe and less respected in the world," Obama told his panel. He said that presumptive Republican nominee John McCain would continue Bush's policies while he himself would "turn the page."