In the Arena

National Security Team of Rivals

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Lots of news from Obamaland on the national security front in the past 24 hours–Hillary Clinton “on track” to become Secretary of State, retired General Jim Jones said to become National Security Adviser (while Republican realist Brent Scowcroft has been advising Obama on National Security)…and some strong flutterings that Obama wants to retain Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense as first reported here last summer, which seems especially credible because no other name has been floated as a potential SecDef.

If true, this is an extremely strong, and wise, national security team. It would reflect a powerful desire on Obama’s part to return to the tradition of bipartisan foreign policy, with politics stopping at the water’s edge. And it would reflect a growing centrist consensus in the foreign policy/national security spectrum that includes most members of the Bush 41 and Clinton teams–in favor of the primacy of diplomacy over militarism, ready to begin talks with those the Bush Administration considered pariahs (the Taliban, Syria, Iran), but not averse to the use of force–against Al Qaeda, in particular–when necessary.

The Clinton selection is historically luscious: it directly mirrors Abraham Lincoln’s choice of William H. Seward as his Secretary of State. Seward was a U.S. Senator from New York and the favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. There was a great deal of skepticism when the inexperienced and little known legislator from Illinois beat Seward for the nomination and then invited him into the Cabinet, but Seward soon came to appreciate, and later adore, Lincoln’s skills as President. I expect something similar to happen with Hillary Clinton, the ultimate good soldier and team player in the Senate–and a potentially powerful voice overseas (although I do hope that the assorted Clintonian carnival acts–from the former President’s skeevy friends to court jesters like Lanny Davis–will be either muzzled or sent packing entirely).

General Jones is universally respected. He refused a series of major positions offered by the Bush Administration, presumably because he opposed the policies he would have been expected to implement. He did agree to study the security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Bush Administration, and came back with reports that were embarrassingly candid. If appointed, he–not David Petraeus–will be the most important (former) general in the Obama Administration, which will help tilt power back toward the President. (Jones is also a close friend of John McCain’s, which may have the effect of bringing McCain inside the tent a bit, and away from the neoconservative extremists whom he “palled around with” for the past decade.)
Of course, strong teams can create huge problems if they don’t cohere…and also if they pursue foolish policies. Bush Junior’s national security team was thought to be “strong” in 2001–but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld ran away with it. I don’t see that sort of thing happening here, but if this is, indeed, the team–it might be a good idea for Clinton, Gates, Jones, Obama and Biden to go off for a weekend retreat somewhere, have a few drinks and get to know each other.

In any case, this group sends an indelible signal that the President-elect is a confident fellow and absolutely intent on creating a new national unity (and sanity) in Foreign Policy and Security matters. That is very good news.