Monday, December 08, 2008

The Obama Team

With General Shinseki’s recent nomination as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, it’s becoming more and more apparent that Barack Obama is not only bringing a new cast of characters into the highest echelons of government but that, probably more importantly, he’s bringing a vastly different approach to governing. For a nation that remains largely divided, it’s critical. Instead of the political hacks and “loyal Bushies” of the past eight years, Obama’s Cabinet, particularly his national security team, are proof that he seeks good judgement and results, not complete deference to the boss, and that he rewards competence over loyalty. If true change is on the horizon, our nation will need serious people to lead us through serious times. In that regard, Obama is off to a good start.

The Times on the Obama national security team:

After years of watching American leadership crumble under the weight of bad decisions made in a White House shuttered to all debate, President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team is a relief. Starting with the selection of Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former rival, as secretary of state, the president-elect has displayed his usual self-confidence. Declaring that he prizes “strong personalities and strong opinions,” Mr. Obama, who has limited foreign-policy experience, showed that he wants advisers with real authority who will not be afraid to disagree with him — two traits disastrously lacking in President Bush’s team.

…Both the selection of Mr. Gates and the appointment of General Jones should ease Mr. Obama’s early relations with the Pentagon. The military’s leaders tend to lean Republican and often mistrust presidents who do not have any military service, as they initially did with Mr. Clinton. When the United States is fighting two wars, good ties with the military are crucial. Mr. Obama seems to have already scored points by reaching out to important commanders, like Gen. David Petraeus. There is no underestimating the challenges facing Mr. Obama, and he will need a strong team to help him. [His choices thus far] are a strong start.
The Post:

Barack Obama’s announcement of his national security team immediately prompted questions about whether he had created a "team of rivals" who would spend as much time feuding as formulating policy. That strikes us as unlikely. True, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are Washington heavyweights with their own strong views about foreign policy and national defense, while incoming national security adviser Gen. James L. Jones has been NATO commander. If Susan E. Rice, nominated as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has a relatively lighter résumé, she compensates by having the closest personal relationship with the president-elect, whom she served during the campaign.

…Mr. Gates, Ms. Clinton and Gen. Jones have also all questioned Mr. Obama's 16-month timetable for withdrawing from Iraq and underlined the need to end the war without touching off a surge of violence in the country. Mr. Obama appears to be tacking toward their position: While he reaffirmed his 16-month timeline yesterday, he also said his "number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security." While it's possible those priorities could be upheld during a 16-month withdrawal, most likely Mr. Obama's own team will press him for greater flexibility.

The president-elect said yesterday that he favors "strong personalities and strong opinions" around him in part because this prevents "groupthink." But groupthink may still be a danger on this team. Eager to correct the perceived errors of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and his appointees are heavily invested in the notion that better diplomacy can answer Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon, ease the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and maybe even solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We hope they are right. If they are wrong, particularly about Iran, someone in this group will need to speak up.
Former Bush speechwriter, Michael Gerson, offers his thoughts on Obama's "Team of Centrists:"

It is a lineup generous in its moderation, astonishing for its continuity, startling for its stability. A defense secretary, Robert Gates, who once headed the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. A secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who supported the invasion of Iraq, voted to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and called direct, unconditional talks with Iran "irresponsible and frankly naive." A national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, most recently employed at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who served as a special adviser to the Bush administration on the Middle East. A Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who is one of Henry Paulson's closest allies outside the administration. A head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, whose writings and research seem to favor low tax rates, stable money and free trade.

It is tempting for conservatives to crow -- or liberals to lament -- that Barack Obama's victory has somehow produced John McCain's administration. But this partisan reaction trivializes some developments that, while early and tentative, are significant. First, these appointments add evidence to a debate about the political character of the president-elect himself. Conservatives have generally feared that Obama is a closet radical. He has uniformly voted with liberal interests and done nothing to justify a reputation for centrism.

Until now. Obama's appointments reveal not just moderation but maturity -- magnanimity to past opponents, a concern for continuity in a time of war and economic crisis, a self-confidence that allows him to fill gaps in his own experience with outsize personalities, and a serious commitment to incarnate his rhetoric of unity. …Whatever the caveats, Obama is doing something marvelously right: He is disappointing the ideologues. This is more than many of us hoped -- and it is causing some of us to raise our hopes in Obama again.
Even Henry Kissinger is getting into the act, providing his thoughts on the “Team of Heavyweights:”

President-elect Barack Obama has appointed an extraordinary team for national security policy. On its face, it violates certain maxims of conventional wisdom: that appointing to the Cabinet individuals with an autonomous constituency, and who therefore are difficult to fire, circumscribes presidential control; that appointing as national security adviser, secretary of state and secretary of defense individuals with established policy views may absorb the president's energies in settling disputes among strong-willed advisers.

It took courage for the president-elect to choose this constellation and no little inner assurance -- both qualities essential for dealing with the challenge of distilling order out of a fragmenting international system. In these circumstances, ignoring conventional wisdom may prove to have been the precondition for creativity. Both Obama and the secretary of state-designate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, must have concluded that the country and their commitment to public service require their cooperation.

…No one has ever been appointed national security adviser who had the command experience of retired Gen. James L. Jones, the former head of the Marine Corps and NATO commander. Inevitably, the facilitating function of the security adviser will be accompanied by a role in policymaking based on a vast, almost unique, experience.

...The continuation in office of Robert Gates as secretary of defense is an important balancing element in that process. Alone among the key players, he is at the end, not the beginning, of his policy contribution. Having agreed to stay on in a transitional role, he cannot be interested in the jockeying that accompanies all new administrations. The incoming administration must have appointed him with the awareness that he would not reverse his previous convictions. He must make the difficult adjustment from one administration to another -- a tribute to the nonpartisan nature of the conduct of his office in the Bush administration. He is a guarantor of continuity but also the shepherd of necessary innovation.

Process is no substitute for substance, of course. But even with this caveat, the new national security team encourages the hope that America is moving beyond its divisions to its opportunities.

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