Friday, December 5, 2008

What The New National Security Team Needs to Know

"Ninety-five percent of American foreign and security policy is bipartisan. That's why Congress argues so hard about the last 5 percent. We have to persuade voters they're getting value for their votes."

That characteristically dry observation came from the late Les Aspin, who was, for 20 years, one of the brightest defense brains on Capitol Hill. President-elect Barack Obama's picks for his top defense and foreign-policy jobs, announced Monday morning, suggest he shares Aspin's view.

Critics of Obama's choices misunderstand them. They don't spell "continuity." Quite the contrary: they signal a shift away from the going-in approach of the Bush administration-a core belief in the unilateral power of America to shape events-back to the traditional post-World War II center in U.S. foreign policy. Back, in other words, to Aspin's "95 percent."

Obama's choices-well, two out of three-signal something else, too: brains are not enough. Washington's vast foreign and defense bureaucracies have to be managed. That was Aspin's failure. Aspin was brilliant but notorious for his inability to manage even his own schedule. Installed as the first defense secretary of the last Democratic president, Aspin was swamped by the Pentagon. The "Black Hawk Down" debacle in Mogadishu was hardly Aspin's fault alone, but it gave Clinton the excuse to fire him after just a year in the job. With Obama's decision to ask Robert Gates to stay on at Defense, and his choice of Gen. James Jones as national-security adviser, the president-elect has eschewed ideology. Instead, he has opted for brains, centrist instincts and management skills-all born of long apprenticeships in the politics of Washington.

Hillary Clinton as secretary of state is, of course, Obama's big gamble. She's a world figure; her nomination sends a global signal of "change" from the Bush years as nobody else could. And she's knowledgeable on defense and foreign policy. Aside from what she learned in her White House years, she gained in the Senate a reputation for relentless homework. Heavyweights from previous administrations whom she was wont to consult would come away drained from their sessions. And she was a valued member of the "senior advisory group"-a civilian sounding board-at the military's Joint Forces Command HQ in Norfolk, Va. But, as her campaign demonstrated, she's a dreadful manager. Obama's choice as deputy secretary of state is going to be crucial, because he (or, possible though less likely, she) is going to have to do the heavy lifting in running the department. James Steinberg, said to be top of the list, was an able deputy national-security adviser in the Clinton White House. But at least two world-class former State Department heavyweights have been lobbying for the job, and Obama may judge that career experience in riding herd on State's fiefdoms would be more relevant than Steinberg's excellent brain.

In all three appointments, the choice of deputies-and which other top officials will work under them-is going to be the first real test of Obama's determination to run his own administration. Who to tap for top chairs at Defense was one of the topics Gates discussed with Obama before agreeing to stay on. Copious leaks from her aides assert that Clinton, as part of her price, extracted from Obama a promise that she could choose her own staff.

We shall see. All cabinet appointees ask for that; all presidents-elect agree; politicians do what they need to do to get their picks on board. What happens next, in practice, is a long tussle, which the White House invariably wins. It is the president's administration, after all, not the cabinet secretary's. (And who's going to resign over this point?) Les Aspin, again, provides an object lesson. Aspin gave President Clinton his list of choices for the top Defense Department jobs. Clinton apparently agreed to them-acknowledging, according to Aspin, that the congressman knew more than he did about the defense talent pool. But Aspin's choices were all middle-aged white men (he failed to persuade a black woman he'd long admired to become general counsel). Once in office, the Clinton White House wanted an administration filled with bright young faces meeting what it called the EGG criteria: ethnicity, gender and geography. So Aspin's choices were held in limbo for months, while the White House searched to fill the Pentagon's junior ranks with EGG-compliant names. Aspin found himself trying to run DOD more or less on his own- a task beyond the ken of far better managers than he ever was.

President Obama's other first-year problem will be how to demonstrate the "change" an enthusiastic world clearly expects. Clinton's appointment will buy him time; dispatching her on some global tour would buy him more. Coping with the international repercussions of the economic meltdown will give Obama a chance to demonstrate how willing he is to heed the views of other nations in building some new global financial architecture. (A concern for the views of other nations, however exasperating, was at the core of America's post-World War II ascendancy. Besides, the shift in global wealth to China and the oil states dictates no other course now.)

But how to demonstrate "change" in other areas of U.S. foreign and defense policy? Even the "gimme" gesture of shutting down Guantánamo Bay will, in practice, take months to effect, and will involve tricky negotiations with the nations to whom internees belong. The reality is that the current administration-obeying Churchill's mordant remark that "the United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative"-has, in Bush's second term, zigzagged its demoralized way to a set of centrist policies (a situation due largely to the efforts of an alliance of Gates at Defense, Rice at State and the underrated Stephen Hadley as national-security adviser.)

What would constitute change on U.S. policy toward Iraq? America's withdrawal now has a timetable agreed upon by the Iraqis. North Korea's nukes? Rice, by shrewdly enlisting Beijing's help, has come tantalizingly close to a settlement. Iran? Nothing is possible unless the mullahs can somehow be pressured into contemplating a deal. Israel and the Palestinians? Nothing suggests either side is close to accepting the agonizing compromises necessary for any settlement. Arguably, U.S.-mediated negotiations have become an alibi for evading those decisions.

On the long list of pressing foreign challenges, only Afghanistan would seem to offer Obama a real chance for a fresh approach. But the Mumbai terrorist attack, and its inevitably dire impact on India-Pakistan relations, doubles the challenge of devising a plausibly workable Afghan strategy.

So, what can President Obama do? Announce a series of grand initiatives, perhaps. Nuclear weapons; global warming; the future of energy after oil; perhaps some sort of Euro-Russian security conference-big topics that would generate the necessary international headlines. Susan Rice's nomination as United Nations ambassador certainly points to this. She is well-suited to push "big initiatives," if less equipped for the cut-and-thrust of Security Council bargaining (so she, too, will need an able deputy.)

This strategy would have the value of buying his new national-security team the months they will need to figure out what precisely any such initiatives might actually entail. And that, in turn, would leave President Obama free to focus for his first year on the one truly urgent foreign and security crisis: the economic one.


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