Obama's national security 'team of rivals'

His choice of Gates, Clinton, and Jones reflects his goal of building a bipartisan cabinet.

Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Strong views: National security adviser nominee Jim Jones shakes hands with President-elect Obama. Secretary of State nominee Hillary Clinton looks on.

The new national security team President-elect Obama is assembling reflects both caution and political pluck as the commander-in-chief-to-be leans on a Bush holdover as Defense secretary to ease the US out of Iraq and a Washington-savvy retired general to oversee national security matters.

Both choices, Robert Gates to stay on as Defense secretary and James Jones as national security adviser, reflect Mr. Obama’s stated desire to build a bipartisan cabinet that is also effective.

In Secretary Gates, Obama chooses a Defense secretary popular with both parties who will temper his ambitious campaign pledge to get out of Iraq in 16 months. The choice of Mr. Jones, a retired Marine general with deep Washington roots, will help Obama to establish his own national security identity in a town wary of his military inexperience.

The two were formally introduced by Obama Monday along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as his new secretary of State and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security chief, among other new members of his cabinet.

In making his choices, Obama said he sought foreign policy pragmatists who may not agree with one another but who “share a core vision.”

He also claimed to prize vigorous debate over “groupthink.”

“I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong decisionmaking,” Obama said Monday.

Obama was widely expected to retain Gates, a one-time war protester and registered Independent respected among Democrats and Republicans. The Defense secretary, who will not need to be confirmed by the Senate, has long been concerned about continuity at the Pentagon in the first wartime transition in 40 years.

Gates was hired as a “Mr. Fix It” for Iraq two years ago, but now his primary task will be to manage the drawdown of about 146,000 troops there, a task described by officers as a logistical and dangerous tightrope walk.

Gates will also have to preside over a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Although the secretary has never been a hard-liner on Iraq, he has said the drawdown should be based on conditions on the ground. Obama, on the other hand, has pledged that troops would be redeployed within 16 months. On Monday, he said he will stick to that goal, while leaving some forces for training Iraqi personnel.

Analysts and military officers in the Pentagon suggest that a compromise of sorts will take place in which Obama presses Gates to move faster and Gates in turn moderates Obama’s policy to reflect ground conditions.

William Fallon, who oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until retiring as head of US Central Command this spring, says keeping Gates is the best course.

“[Gates] would likely offer a pragmatic view and a balanced approach to demands on people, the budget, and operational priorities,” says Mr. Fallon.

In picking Jones, who is respected both in military circles and on Capitol Hill, Obama is trying to show he is his own man.

Jones was a top military officer in the early years of the Bush administration and, as a member of the Joint Chiefs in 2002, a voice of caution in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Jones became a minor irritant to then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, questioning Gen. Tommy Franks’ war plans.

In Bush’s second term, he was asked to join the State Department but declined, though he did serve as a special envoy to the Middle East. The general is considered a “warrior-diplomat.”
Jones broke Pentagon tradition by leaving the Marine Corps’ top job to become head of US European Command and of NATO in Europe instead of retiring. There, he led the effort to redefine the alliance by pushing it to take over the Afghanistan mission. In the years since, he has said the administration took its “eye off the ball” in Afghanistan.

He is known to follow his own political instincts but also pay heed to the advice of trusted aides. “He is very effective at managing a large staff and instilling loyalty and being able to seamlessly work issues across multiple stakeholders in a diplomatic fashion,” says a former aide.

Gates is expected to serve in the Obama Cabinet for just up to a year, but he probably won’t have the luxury of delaying decisions on key weapons programs such as the Army’s high-tech future combat system or the Air Force’s expensive F-22 stealth fighter.

Gates will also have to address the long-term strains on the force as a result of five years of war in Iraq. Piracy along the East African coast may also require his attention.

The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai and subsequent rise in tensions between India and Pakistan are also likely to be important foreign-policy issues.

But Obama on Monday said he believed the team he has assembled can address these challenges, perhaps precisely because of the variety of perspectives its members provide.
“There is no monopoly of power or wisdom in either party,” he said.

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