National security: Can familiar faces bring change?

Obama's appointees for his national security team are hard-headed “pragmatists” rather than ideologues, and while they have been “hawkish symbolically,” their worldview is much closer to Obama's.

“So far, so very good,” said The Economist in an editorial. A week after reassuring centrists and conservatives with his choice of an economic team, President-elect Obama did it again this week with his national security team. To the dismay of the anti-war Left, Obama gave the three highest-profile jobs to Washington veterans with views and track records “more hawkish than his own,” even persuading President Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, to stay on in the new administration. Retired Gen. James Jones, whom Obama tapped as his national security advisor, may have been critical of the way the war in Iraq was managed, said Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, but neither he nor Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, hails “from the surrender-at-all-costs wing of the Democratic Party.” In fact, if anything, this team has a hawkish, “rightward” tilt to it—a pleasant surprise, and a great relief, to those of us who believe in a muscular foreign policy.

That old hawk/dove dichotomy has outlived its usefulness, said Jay Bookman in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as Obama clearly realizes. All three of these appointees are hard-headed “pragmatists” rather than ideologues; what they share is comfort with nuance, and an understanding that in responding to such complex threats as North Korea, Iran, Hamas, and several ongoing genocides in Africa, neither carrots nor sticks alone will suffice. Gates and Clinton are getting the headlines, said Fred Kaplan in, but Obama’s “most important national security pick” is James Jones. The 6-foot-5 retired Marine commandant and NATO commander is a close friend of Obama’s former opponent, John McCain, and practically embodies a muscular foreign policy. But he’s also a master of diplomacy, known for his fluent French and flair for behind-the-scenes deal making. It’ll be Jones’ job to make sure that “once the debating is done,” the strong personalities on this team “carry out the president’s decision.”

Pardon me if I’m not impressed, said Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation. Many of us on the Left voted for Obama because he was the only candidate to oppose the Iraq war from the beginning. Unlike, say, Hillary Clinton, who not only voted for the war in Iraq but also campaigned for the presidency as a tough-minded hawk with disdain for diplomacy, Obama promised “some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century.” So where is it? How are we supposed to feel when all three of Obama’s national security picks were all originally in favor of the “greatest foreign policy disaster in U.S. history”?

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“Cheer up,’’ said Peter Beinart in Time. Obama hasn’t suddenly turned into Dick Cheney. Remember when George W. Bush was trying to drum up support for invading Iraq? He didn’t send Cheney to the U.N. to make the case for war. Instead, he sent Colin Powell, precisely “because Powell was nobody’s idea of a hawk.” We’re now watching Obama pull the same trick in reverse. These three appointees are “hawkish symbolically,” but their worldview is much closer to Obama’s than to Cheney’s. Jones refused two job offers from Bush because he was appalled at how his administration handled Iraq, and both he and Gates want the detention center at Guantánamo closed. Gates also has warned that a military strike on Iran would be “a strategic calamity.” With Clinton, Jones, and particularly Gates at his side, Obama now has the “political cover” to draw down the troops from Iraq and enact a “genuinely progressive foreign policy,” including a diplomatic offensive with Iran.

If we’d been listening to Obama carefully, said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, his centrist choices would come as no surprise. Yes, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq, making him the darling of the anti-war Left. But as he said at the time, his objection to that particular war was rooted in pragmatism, not pacifism. Like the first President Bush, Obama recognized that invading Iraq would lead to a long, costly occupation that would only anger Muslims and damage America’s interests. Obama’s choice of a foreign-policy team confirms what his entire political career has suggested—that his only agenda is to succeed. As president, he’ll be both smart and strategic in seeking to advance our national interests in an ever-changing world of threats and opportunities. After eight years of neoconservative triumphalism and willful blindness, that certainly counts as change—“maybe even change we can believe in.”

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