All Deliberate Speed

An Iraqi soldier watches coverage of U.S. election returns in Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier watches coverage of U.S. election returns in Baghdad. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By David Ignatius
Thursday, November 6, 2008

In July 2007, when the possibility that Barack Obama might win the presidency was still just a gleam in the candidate's eye, he met with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to ask for some advice. But he wasn't after the usual campaign position papers or sound bites. Obama was already thinking in bigger terms.

What can a new president accomplish in foreign policy in his first 12 months in office that he can't achieve later? Obama wanted to know. How should a new president reorganize his national security team so that the structure fits the problems of the 21st century? Brzezinski came away deeply impressed, and he became an informal Obama adviser.

With Tuesday's victory, Obama and his advisers get to think about these global questions full time. Conversations over the past few days with several members of the president-elect's inner circle yielded some basic outlines of the new administration's approach to foreign policy:

· Obama wants to pick his foreign policy roster first, and then turn to substance. "There was a tendency to try to do both personnel and policy simultaneously in the past, and it stumbled," said one key adviser. Among the big questions are whether to ask Bob Gates to stay on as defense secretary or, if not, whether to appoint a prominent Republican, such as Sen. Richard Lugar or Sen. Chuck Hagel, as secretary of state. Either way, Obama wants a bipartisan team.

· As he builds his team, Obama wants to spend time listening to experts who can advise him on policies. The former law professor is being characteristically deliberative. He doesn't want to make up his mind until he's heard from all sides. That consensus-seeking style is likely to be a trademark of his administration.

· For national security adviser, Obama is likely to pick a pragmatist. "He wants to find out what works -- what advances U.S. national interests. . . . If secret diplomacy is required to achieve your objectives, he would certainly accept that," says Gregory B. Craig, a Washington lawyer who's on the shortlist for a top position.

· During the transition, Obama won't meddle in the Bush administration's decisions -- and he won't allow other governments to end-run Bush. "He's not going to do anything that gives the idea they don't have to negotiate with this administration," says the adviser. This insistence on "one president at a time" is especially important in the deadlocked negotiations with Iraq over a new status-of-forces agreement. Several Obama aides caution that the Iraqis shouldn't drag their feet and hope for a better deal.

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