Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Barack Obama had to sign a lot of prenuptial agreements before he was able to put together the national-security team he announced this week.

Before Hillary Clinton agreed to be his secretary of state, she wanted assurances that she would have unimpeded access to him and inclusion in all White House foreign-policy deliberations. And she wanted to pick her own team at State. She got both.

Obama entered this once unlikely partnership between the two political rivals with some demands of his own. Former President Clinton would first have to reveal the names of the donors to his nonprofit global foundation to guard against conflicts of interest. His well-paid speeches abroad had to be vetted as well. The Clintons readily agreed.

Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones was reluctant to accept the post of presidential national-security adviser. Previous people in that job found that the secretaries of state and defense constantly undercut their advice. Jones knew that going up against a powerful political infighter like Hillary Clinton would be no easy task. If Obama was putting together a "team of rivals," he wanted to be on an equal plane with them.

To nearly every problem that Jones raised, Obama would say, "I can fix it." He was given the Cabinet rank he sought and the pledge that he would be the administration's chief security adviser and conduit.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' decision to remain in his job presented different challenges. He had been the chief proponent of President Bush's surge that rescued the Iraq war from certain defeat and gave the Iraqis time to train their military. He opposed Obama's troop-withdrawal timetable, and said so publicly; he still believes the Iraqis need more time before they are able to go it alone.

Obama gave him assurances that, as the lone Republican on the team, he would be in on all national-security decision making and the future of the Iraq war. At the same time, he assured Gates that his 16-month pullout timeline was not set in concrete, that the United States would not leave the Iraqis high and dry, and that he was willing to seek a compromise on any future withdrawal.

He acknowledged Monday that the policy terrain regarding the length of time that combat troops would remain in Iraq had already changed as a result of the Bush administration's security agreement with Iraq that called for U.S. troop withdrawal in three years.

There is a lot of room for compromise between 36 months and 16 months, and Obama was sending signals this week that he was prepared to leave U.S. troops in Iraq longer than he envisions if his military commanders say they need more time to secure the country.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.