Meet Obama's security team

President-elect Obama.

The Associated Press
Published: Monday, December 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 at 12:15 a.m.

WASHINGTON — When President-elect Barack Obama introduces his national security team today, it will include two veteran Cold Warriors and a political rival whose records are all more hawkish than the new president who will face them in the White House Situation Room.

Yet all three of his choices — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state, Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary — were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military's huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

Whether they can make the change — one that Obama started talking about in the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was a long shot at best — "will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency," one of his senior advisers said recently. But the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the three have all embraced "a rebalancing of America's national security portfolio" after a huge investment in new combat capabilities under Bush.

Obama's advisers said they were already bracing themselves for the charge from the right that he is investing in social work rather than counterterrorism, even though President Bush repeatedly promised such a shift, starting in a series of speeches in late 2005. But they also expect battles within the Democratic Party over questions like whether the $1 billion dollars in aid to rebuild Afghanistan that Obama promised during the campaign should now be spent on job-creation projects at home.

Obama's best political cover may come from Gates, the former Central Intelligence Agency director and veteran of the Cold War, who just months ago said it was "hard to imagine any circumstance" in which he would stay in his post at the Pentagon. Now he will do exactly that. A year ago, to studied silence from the Bush White House, he began giving a series of speeches about the limits of military power in wars in which no military victory is possible. He made popular the statistic (quoted a few months earlier by Obama) that the United States has more members of military marching bands than foreign service officers.

He also denounced "the gutting of America's ability to engage, assist and communicate with other parts of the world — the ‘soft power' which had been so important throughout the Cold War." He blamed both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and said later in an interview that "it is almost like we forgot everything we learned in Vietnam."

Obama's choice for national security adviser, Jones, took the critique a step further in a searing report this year about what he called the Bush administration's failed strategy in Afghanistan, where Obama has vowed to ramp up the fight as U.S. troops depart from Iraq. When the report came out, Jones, the former Marine commandant and commander of U.S. forces in Europe, was widely quoted as saying, "Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan," a comment that directly contradicted the White House.

But Jones went on to describe why the U.S. and its allies were not winning: After nearly seven years of fighting, they had failed to develop a strategy that could dependably bring reconstruction projects and other assistance into areas from which the Taliban had been routed — making each victory a temporary one, reversed as soon as the forces departed.

Several times Bush promised to alter that strategy, even creating a "civilian reserve corps" of nation-builders under State Department auspices, but the administration never committed serious funds or personnel to the effort. If Obama and his team can bring about that kind of shift, it could mark one of the most significant changes in national security strategy in decades and greatly enhance the powers of Clinton as secretary of state.

"This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem," Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, said in an interview on Sunday.

"During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned," McDonough said. "There wasn't a meeting that didn't include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century."

Yet it is a task that, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others in the Bush administration discovered, is far easier to describe than to execute, or to get Congress to fund.

That problem will be no less acute for Obama in Afghanistan, where the building projects and job-creation activities that Bush promised in 2002, soon after the invasion, and then again in late 2005, have ground to a halt in many parts of the country because the security situation has made it too dangerous for the State Department's "provincial reconstruction teams" to operate.

But Obama has promised a diplomatic push that is much broader than Afghanistan. In October 2007, he pledged to make diplomacy a priority. "Instead of shuttering consulates, we need to open them in the tough and hopeless corners of the world," he said.

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