Editorial -- Barack Obama's National Security Appointees Have Plenty in Common

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

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.

But all of the national security officials Mr. Obama named yesterday are proven pragmatists and team players. Yes, that includes Ms. Clinton, who, after losing a tough nomination fight with Mr. Obama, endorsed him without reservation and campaigned for him unstintingly. Moreover, despite their varying backgrounds, the nominees have similar views about how to address the two wars and myriad other challenges the new administration will face. That seems particularly true of Mr. Gates, the holdover from the Bush administration, and Ms. Clinton; each has advocated increasing resources for U.S. diplomacy and nation-building.

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.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company