Sunday, November 23, 2008

Obama sends in the Marines

President-Elect Obama's top foreign policy and national security team appears to be developing quickly as a group that is certainly "centrist" but, even more to the point, non-political, professional and pragmatic.

As attention has focused mostly on the appointment of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the Washington Post reports that the rest of the team, as it is shaping up is likely to include:

-- Robert M. Gates remaining as Secretary of Defense, at least for a while;

-- Recently retired Marine General James L. Jones (left) as National Security Adviser; and

-- John Brennan, a career CIA officer who advised the Obama campaign on intelligence issues, as Director of National Intelligence or Director of the CIA (Obama is considering several others for this post).

Of special note, WaPo reports that in discussions with General Jones, "Obama is considering expanding the scope of the job to give the adviser the kind of authority once wielded by powerful figures such as Henry A. Kissinger."


What leaps out about this group is that with the exception of former and potentially future political rival Hillary Clinton, these are lifelong national security professionals. While Gates is being counted these days as a Republican and has served in high positions under two Republican Presidents, the fact is that he was a career intelligence analyst who rose to the leadership of the CIA and was unaffiliated politically for most of his life.

Similarly, General Jones, as is customary in the military, had no known political affinity while rising through the ranks to become Commandant of the Marine Corps and Supreme NATO Commander. He was neutral in this year's Presidential contest, advised Obama, but is also close to John McCain.

Like Gates, Brennan is a career CIA analyst who held high positions at the Agency and served as the first director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Nominally a Republican, Brennan advised Obama during the campaign and reputedly became Obama's go-to guy on intelligence issues.

All three men may appeal to Obama, because they are smart, experienced pros at what they do, tempermentally thoughtful and low-key, and not likely to pursue agendas other than the President's. As WaPo notes, "Gates is widely known for being a nonpartisan, congenial manager, while Jones is considered by many who know him to be a self-effacing general who 'wears power very gracefully...' "

The Jones appointment may be the most interesting. You don't ask a four-star general to run the NSC operation at the White House unless you plan to rely on him a great deal, give him wide scope and authority, but also expect him to play well with the rest of the team. And writing in The New Yorker, Steve Coll points to another important reason why Obama wants Jones at his side:

"As a nonpartisan center-right career military man only recently graduated from service, he offers bountiful political cover to the Obama White House. In a stroke, too, Jones answers the question of how a President-elect with no military experience and weak connections to the Pentagon can immediately assert authority in wartime over a Republican-leaning senior officer corps conditioned by the Bush Presidency, which often ceded strategic prerogatives to field commanders..."

With two wars to finish while also grappling with an economic crisis, Obama will need to run a tight ship.

UPDATE - 11/25/08 - Numerous reports are out that it's a done deal for Gates to remain as Secretary of Defense for at least a year. It's also being reported that Admiral Dennis Blair (Ret.), another experienced professional who was CinC of the U.S. Pacific Command, is slated to become Director of National Intelligence. That still leaves John Brennan as a possible Director of the CIA.

UPDATE II - 11/25/08 - John Brennan has taken himself out of consideration for any intelligence post, presumably because of vociferous objections from some liberals related to his supposed connection to the Agency's secret rendition and detention activities during the campaign against al Qaeda.

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