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The Monitor's View

Obama's national security balancing act

With Clinton, Gates, and Jones, he can weigh opposing views better than Bush did.

By The Monitor's Editorial Board / December 2, 2008



Like his economic team, Barack Obama's choices for three top national security jobs exude competence. But by including his one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, as well as two experienced hands in Republican administrations – Robert Gates and Gen. James Jones – he's reaching beyond competence to a balanced approach to foreign affairs.

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Mr. Obama's selections, announced Dec. 1, show the president-elect is serious about his campaign promise to "return to a tradition of nonpartisan national security."

Defense Secretary Gates, whom Obama plans to keep on, and retired Marine General Jones, who will be the national security adviser, both enjoy strong bipartisan support in Congress. With Senator Clinton as secretary of State, Obama bridges a divide within his own party.

The team is not without risk. Mrs. Clinton is viewed as more hawkish than Obama and has sharply disagreed with him on Israel and Iran. Her manner and perhaps lingering ambition could clash with "no drama Obama," and the transition team has had to work out an arrangement with her former-president husband to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Retaining Gates, who oversaw the troop surge in Iraq, is bound to disappoint those who hoped for more change from the "change" candidate, although Gates's experience will be invaluable as Baghdad moves toward its tricky transition.

On core subjects, the three are in sync with their boss-to-be. They favor careful and deliberate military withdrawal from Iraq, greater attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan as the central front in the war on global jihadism, a restoration of America's global reputation, and a recalibration of US might to include more diplomatic and economic "soft power."

As for differing views, Obama says he welcomes "strong opinions" – à la President Lincoln's cabinet of rivals. "Open and serious debate versus ideological certitude will be a great relief to the military leaders," retired Maj. Gen. William Nash told The Washington Post this week – though in truth, the Bush administration has shown greater flexibility in its second term, no small thanks to Gates and his counterpart at State, Condoleezza Rice.

The next administration will have more than personalities to balance, however. The foreign-policy agenda is stacked with folders marked "urgent," and Obama will have to take care that no single issue dominates and distracts.

It would be a mistake to kick Middle East peace efforts way down the road, to let energy security slip along with falling oil prices, or allow the economic and financial crisis to scare off costly adjustments to climate change. Iran, Russia, and also China – an economic dragon likely to gain strength relative to the US – all need focused attention.

Not just the agenda is multifaceted, but the world stage is increasingly so. Obama's team should work to reclaim US leadership (even in its weakened state, America is still the only superpower). But as other countries such as India and Brazil pick up economic power, Washington will become one player among many, having to find its place in a complex, interconnected world – as the financial crisis illustrates.

Obama has chosen three talented individuals to help him juggle these demands. But ultimately, how well it goes will be up to him.

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