The selection of experienced centrists – Hillary Rodham Clinton, Robert Gates and James L. Jones – to head President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team points to the possibility that on Iraq, the incoming commander-in-chief may take a more measured path to ending American military involvement than he described during the presidential campaign.
Obama’s choices signal a more pragmatic, less ideological approach to asserting American leadership in the world.
In announcing on Monday that Clinton is his choice for secretary of state and that Gates has agreed to remain as defense secretary – with Jones as national security adviser in the White House – Obama said he has intentionally surrounded himself with “strong personalities and strong opinions.”
And he made clear that when push comes to shove, he will be the one to make the tough calls.
Gates in particular has opposed setting a hard deadline for removing U.S. forces from Iraq, but he also has emphasized the need to transition the U.S. military mission from combat to support for Iraqi forces. And Gates shares Obama’s view that some resources now in Iraq should be shifted to Afghanistan.
Obama will likely rely on Jones, who spent 40 years in the Marine Corps but has never served in the executive branch of government, to lay the groundwork by melding the views of Clinton and Gates.
In an Associated Press interview shortly after Obama’s announcement in Chicago, Jones feels well prepared for his expected role in building consensus among the key players on national security.
“I’ve always felt that the more senior I got, even in the military, the more important is the art of making people feel like they own part of the problem and also part of the solution. Raising consensus is important,” he said.
“At the end of the day, when you need a decision you need to be able to go to the boss and say, `Okay, here is how things line up and here are the options and here’s my recommendation and what do you want to do?”‘
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a Washington research group, said the combination of Clinton, Gates and Jones appears to fit well with Obama’s pledge to be pragmatic when it comes to decisions about the use of military force and in building overseas alliances.
“The tone is centrist and non-ideological, which is quite a change from the Bush administration,” he said.
In his younger days in the Marine Corps, Jones, 64, was known to some as “the Hawk” — not as a reflection of his defense views but as a comment on the prominence of his nose. Today he is widely seen as nonpartisan; during the campaign he informally advised both Obama and John McCain.
Gates, while closely associated with a Republican administration, also has served in the White House during Democratic presidencies. At his news conference Monday, Obama said he didn’t ask Gates to remain at the Pentagon because of his party affiliation, although he has promised to have a Republican in his Cabinet.
“The point here is that I didn’t go around checking people’s political registration,” Obama said. “What I was most concerned with was whether or not they can serve the interests of the American people.”
The president-elect said he was parting ways with recent practice by assembling a diverse group of national security leaders.
“One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think and everybody agrees with everything and there’s no discussion and there are no dissenting views,” he said. “So I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.
“But understand, I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I will expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.”
Obama said he intends to stick to his campaign pledge to get U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office. But he also appeared to leave himself some wiggle room on the timetable.
“I believe that 16 months is the right timeframe,” he said. “But as I have said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders. And my number one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security.”
In the AP interview, Jones said that the role of energy — including U.S. dependence on foreign sources of oil — deserves to play a bigger part in the U.S. government’s national security deliberations and decision making. That meshes with one of the main messages Obama trumpeted during his campaign.
“National security is a broader portfolio in the 21st century than just the National Security Council, the State Department and the Defense Department,” Jones said. “It’s got to include energy.”
Jones stressed that even though gasoline prices have fallen dramatically in recent weeks, the Obama administration can be expected to keep a sharp focus on seeking a long-term energy security policy.
“We’re in an energy crisis. It would be foolish to take our eye off the ball and say we don’t have an energy crisis anymore. We do,” he said. “It’s part of the national security portfolio and it will be treated as such. The breadth of national security issues is going to widen and we’ll try to put together a National Security Council team that reflects that new reality.”
Gates’ press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said Obama and Gates apparently set no end date for him at the Pentagon.
“My understanding is the secretary and the president-elect agreed that the period of his continued service will be open-ended,” Morrell said.
Robert Burns has covered national security affairs for the AP since 1990.