For Obama, A Team of Insiders

Donald Lambro

12/3/2008 12:01:00 AM - 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.

Thus, the man who made pulling out of the Iraq war his No. 1 foreign-policy campaign issue now says that the United States will have "to maintain a residual force to provide potential training for the Iraqi military and logistical support to protect our civilians in Iraq." That was the behind-the-scenes advice his Iraq war advisers gave him early this year, and he is apparently taking it.

Notably, Obama now says his "No. 1 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.

"I will listen to the recommendation of my commanders," he reaffirmed Monday.

Not surprisingly, all of his wiggle-room talk is making his party's hard-line, antiwar base quite unhappy, and there is growing anger in the leftist blogosphere. It is suddenly dawning on them that we are going to be in Iraq a little longer than they had been led to believe.

Two things strike me about Obama's national-security team that tells us a lot about how much change he will really bring about -- or perhaps more likely how little things will change.

He talked in his campaign of bringing change to Washington from the outside in, but anyone flying over the nation's capital after Obama takes office may see few substantive changes on the players.

Down there in the Pentagon will be Bush's secretary of defense, Bob Gates, champion of the surge that Obama said would fail and "make things worse."

At the State Department will be Washington insider Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war resolution, opposed setting withdrawal deadlines and has taken more hard-line positions toward Russia and other trouble spots than Obama.

And in the West Wing, just down the hall from the Oval Office, will be Obama's national-security adviser, Jim Jones, a 40-year Marine veteran who remains mum about his political leanings but is seen as a conservative on many military issues and has advised Republicans and Democrats alike.

Too much has been made of this idea of "a team of rivals" when in fact they may agree more than they disagree. The Washington Post, in an editorial Tuesday, called them a "team of centrists," pointing out that Obama's "national-security appointees have plenty in common."

Which may remind people of the old admonition that the more things change, the more they stay the same.