Picking Up the Pieces: A Sober, War-Time National Security Cabinet Takes Shape

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As they were introduced and made brief remarks this morning, it was hard to envy the team of national security aides President-elect Barack Obama announced today at the Chicago Hilton. President Bush and Vice President Cheney broke the national security apparatus. Are retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones, Obama’s designated national security adviser, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the next secretary of state, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who Obama has asked to stay on, up to the task of fixing it? In the midst of two wars, and the most ominous economic crisis in half a century?

Obama expressed confidence in the pragmatism and competence of the bipartisan national security team he had assembled, and the event conveyed sobriety and awareness of the enormous task ahead, more so than any excitement at the prospect of a new, more cooperative and internationalist national security vision to come from Washington. The team he picked reflected the subdued moment: pragmatists over ideologues, managers and technocrats who get things done. These people represent a far cry from the Bush era’s hardline, uncompromising, us-versus-them, bellicose rhetoric and often miserable incompetence.

“In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning – a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century, and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges,” Obama said. “To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example. The team that we have assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that. They share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose about America’s role as a leader in the world.”

General Jones, who has served as a Marine Corps commandant, as NATO’s supreme allied commander, and, most recently, as Bush’s Mideast envoy (trying to assess efforts to build up the Palestinian security forces), is widely respected both abroad and within the turf-conscious national security community in Washington. (A native Kansan, Jones went to high school in France, where his father was stationed as a military officer and speaks fluent French.) Jones is “a good guy,” says one former US intelligence official who dealt with Jones during the first Bush term on a European-related issue. “He’s politically tuned into Hillary. He’s pretty smart guy, speaks French….They like him in Europe. He’s a well-respected, good man, a square guy and a good marine. He’ll handle the job better than Stephen Hadley.”

Other appointments Obama announced today include his long-time campaign foreign policy adviser Susan Rice as US ambassador to the United Nations, which will again be a cabinet level position; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security; and Eric Holder as attorney general. It’s worth noting that Obama did not announce a director of national intelligence or director of the Central Intelligence Agency among his other national security appointments today. The reported top candidate for the job, John Brennan, withdrew his name from consideration last week, after coming under criticism in the left blogosphere for allegedly defending the CIA’s harsh interrogation practices while serving as an aide to former CIA director George Tenet.

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