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December 2, 2008

Diplomacy, Multilateralism Stressed by Obama Team

by Jim Lobe

Introducing the top figures in his national security team in Chicago Monday, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama promised a "new dawn of American leadership" that will be marked by much greater emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism than was accorded by the incumbent, George W. Bush.

Obama said all of his appointees, who featured current Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Obama's former rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, shared a "core vision of what's needed to keep the American people safe and to assure prosperity here at home and peace abroad."

"[I]n order to do that we have to combine military power with strengthened diplomacy," he said. "And we have to build and forge stronger alliances around the world so that we're not carrying the burdens and these challenges by ourselves."

That message, which was previewed by an unidentified Obama "senior adviser" in a front-page New York Times article Monday morning, was duly repeated by the appointees themselves as they were introduced.

"We know our security, our values, and our interests cannot be protected and advanced by force alone nor, indeed, by Americans [alone]," declared Clinton. She added that Obama's presidency marked a "new effort to renew America's standing in the world as a force for positive change."

Monday's introductions, anticipated by weeks of leaks to the news media, was largely anticlimactic, although it did little to quiet speculation about what the appointments will mean for specific policies – most urgently at the moment, the possibility of radically increased tensions between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India in the wake of the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai – facing the incoming administration, which will take office Jan. 20.

In addition to Gates staying on at the Pentagon and Clinton taking over the State Department, Obama named retired Marine Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser and former President Bill Clinton's top Africa aide, Susan Rice, as his ambassador to the United Nations.

To highlight the renewed priority the UN and other multilateral institutions will claim under Obama, Rice, whose early desertion to Obama caused consternation in Sen. Clinton's primary campaign, will be given Cabinet rank. It remains unclear, however, whether Rice will expected to align her own policy views with Clinton's.

He also made two other key nominations with national security implications: Eric Holder, who served as deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton, was appointed to lead the Justice Department, while Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a longtime U.S. attorney who has taken a special interest in immigration issues, was named to head the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Obama did not announce his appointment for director of national intelligence (DNI), a key foreign policy post for which most analysts believe retired Adm. Dennis Blair is the front-runner.

Most of the attention Monday, however, was focused on the three main foreign policy-making appointments – Clinton, Gates and Jones – all of whom are considered strong personalities whose views are seen as generally more hawkish than Obama's.

Indeed, those picks have caused growing concern among some of Obama's veteran supporters who rallied to his candidacy in major part due to his early and outspoken opposition, especially in contrast to Clinton, to the Iraq war.

"He really differentiated himself in the [Democratic primary campaign] in his opposition to the war in Iraq," noted Christopher Preble, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, "and yet he hasn't reached out to a genuine outsider like he was himself not so long ago."

Conversely, a number of right-wing figures have hailed the nominations, particularly Clinton's, as better than expected. "I'm relieved," neoconservative impresario Richard Perle told The New Republic Monday. "Contrary to expectations, I don't think we would see a lot of change."

Neoconservatives, who have long distrusted "realists" like Gates and Jones, have been particularly enthusiastic about Clinton's appointment, noting that she was the most hawkish and most supportive of Israel of all of the Democratic presidential candidates over the past year, although the latter stance may, in the words of one commentator, "simply have been a byproduct of representing New York [which has a disproportionately large Jewish population] in the Senate."

During the late 1990s, Clinton's was among the most prominent voices calling for a Palestinian state, a position she then played down in her election to the Senate in 2000.

In answer to questions Monday, Obama indicated that he was comfortable with the possibility that his nominees may clash with him and with each other in making policy so long as all recognized that final decisions would be his alone.

"I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House," he said, noting "group think" around the president – where "everybody agrees with everything, and there's no discussion and … no dissenting views" – had contributed to serious mistakes in the past.

"But understand I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made," he added.

That "vision," as he and his nominees made clear, will revolve around, in the words of the Times' "senior adviser," "a rebalancing of America's national security portfolio" to expand Washington's diplomatic and other implements of "soft power" after the huge increases in its defense budget over the past eight years.

Indeed, Gates himself has frequently spoken out over the past year in favor of major budget increases for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), deploring "the gutting of America's ability to engage, assist, and communicate with other parts of the world" since the end of the Cold War. Jones is reported to share that view.

"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," Obama said, adding that Clinton's appointment should be taken as "a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."

In an implicit repudiation of Bush's unilateralism, he also repeatedly stressed U.S. interdependence with the rest of the world, noting that all of the challenges faced by Washington were linked by "the fundamental reality that in the 21st century, our destiny is shared with the world's."

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, another likely player in the White House foreign policy debate, echoed the same themes in speaking after the nominees' introduction. Citing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the emergence of new powers, the dangers of nonproliferation, scarcities of basic resources, the impact of climate change, and the persistence of poverty, he noted that "no one country can control these forces. But more than any other country in the world, we have the ability to affect them if we use the totality of our strength."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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