By Karen DeYoung and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama's high-powered national security team, introduced yesterday at a Chicago news conference, faces the challenge of managing two wars and various ongoing foreign policy crises even as it helps the president-elect shape what he called "a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership" in the world.
In announcing his choices of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) to be secretary of state, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to continue in office and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones to serve as national security adviser, Obama laid out a vision of an America whose global stature is restored and whose military, diplomatic and economic power are balanced with one another and with "the power of our moral example."
But he acknowledged that "grave" and "urgent" national security issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential conflict between Pakistan and India, and economic crisis at home and abroad, require immediate attention. The challenge will be balancing those immediate priorities handed over by the Bush administration -- what the Obama camp calls the "inheritance issues" -- with national and international expectations for the longer-term changes he pledged during the campaign.
The members of his new team, Obama said yesterday, "share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose." Three other Cabinet selections announced were Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security and Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Obama repeatedly emphasized his intention to expand U.S. diplomacy while buttressing the size and capabilities of the military, and he stressed the interconnectedness of national security and economic issues. Rice, who served as a senior foreign policy aide to Obama during the campaign, listed an ambitious global agenda -- "to prevent conflict, to promote peace, combat terrorism, prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change, end genocide, fight poverty and disease."
But "you have to manage the legacy" of the Bush administration "while trying to move forward on priorities," one Obama adviser said. "The balance is showing that you're serious about what's important -- what you said during the campaign -- without overloading the agenda. It's more important to have success that shows you're making progress than a long, uncompleted pass."
In addition to the pressing issues in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, Obama must quickly decide whether to continue negotiations begun by President Bush on North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how to deal with Iran, and what to do about the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Preparations must be made for three major summits -- NATO, the Group of 20 and the Summit of the Americas -- scheduled within three months of the inauguration.
At yesterday's news conference, however, questions focused less on policy than on how the eclectic personalities standing behind Obama and in front of American flags -- particularly Clinton, Gates and Jones -- would mesh. Asked how he would avoid having a "clash of rivals" rather than the smoothly functioning team he portrayed, Obama said he expected "vigorous debate" and described himself as "a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions."
"One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history," Obama continued, "is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views."
Obama turned playful when a reporter reminded him of the sharp criticisms he leveled at Clinton during the campaign, including equating her travels as first lady to having tea with foreign leaders. Obama waved off the question, saying the press was merely "having fun" by stirring up quotes from the campaign.
"Differences get magnified" during campaigns, Obama said. "I did not ask for assurances from these individuals that they would agree with me at all times. I think they understood and would not be joining this team unless they understood and were prepared to carry out the decisions that have been made by me after full discussion."
"On the broad core vision of where America needs to go," he said, "we are in almost complete agreement. There are going to be differences in tactics and different assessments and judgments made. That's what I expect; that's what I welcome. That's why I asked them to join the team."
"But understand, I will be setting policy as president," he added. "I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made."
The announcements confirmed weeks of speculation and secret negotiations. Gates had never closed the door on staying in office but repeatedly insisted that he wanted to retire to his home in Washington state. Discussions with Clinton were not solidified until agreement was reached over public release of the names of donors to the foundation established by her husband, the former president.
Jones was said to have resisted repeated entreaties from Obama until early last week. His concerns, according to a source who discussed the matter with the former NATO commander, centered on avoiding the problems that plagued Bush's first term, including a weak National Security Council and end runs around national security adviser Condoleezza Rice by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.
Another Obama adviser said the president-elect's team has studied Bush's attempt to put together a first-term team of national security heavyweights, only to see discipline collapse among warring factions. With Jones, the adviser said, Obama felt he had found "a very substantial person who can make the system work."
"Obama kept coming back," the source said. "Everything [Jones] told him about the reasons he didn't want the job, [Obama] said, 'I can fix that.' " Jones is said to have emerged with guarantees that he would have Cabinet rank and be the main foreign policy conduit to and from the president.
Clinton stood without expression yesterday as Obama, the former rival she once called "naive" on some aspects of foreign policy, praised her "extraordinary intelligence and remarkable work ethic." Obama continued: "She is an American of tremendous stature who will have my complete confidence, who knows many of the world's leaders, who will command respect in every capital, and who will clearly have the ability to advance our interests around the world. Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."
Clinton cracked a smile when Obama described her as a "tough campaign opponent." In her own remarks, she said that "if confirmed, I will give this assignment, your administration and my country my all."
A source close to the transition and familiar with discussions between Clinton and Obama described her as confident that she will have the president's ear when she needs it, and as unconcerned about the potential for rivalry with Jones and Gates. "She knows how the White House works," the source said of the former first lady.
Gates was brief and businesslike, declaring himself "deeply honored" to be asked to continue his service. Referring to the American troops at war, he said: "I must do my duty as they do theirs. How could I do otherwise?"
During the campaign, Gates publicly questioned Obama's plan to set a timetable for withdrawing most U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, saying it would undermine recent security gains there. Since then, however, the Bush administration has signed a security agreement with Iraq pledging a complete withdrawal by the end of 2011, and senior U.S. military officials who have spoken with Obama have said they think they can strike a compromise on the number and timing of withdrawals. In recent months, Gates has given a series of speeches dovetailing with Obama's emphasis on the importance of diplomacy and "soft power" along with military force.
Noting it would likely be necessary "to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq," Obama said yesterday that he thinks "16 months is the right time frame. But, as I've said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders."
Shear reported from Chicago. Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Washington contributed to this report.