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Never mind the team:

the president does the moves

By Philip Stephens

Published: December 4 2008 19:23

Ingram Pinn illustration

The campaign poetry is long forgotten. Barack Obama is promising business at usual. Look at the emerging line-up of his administration. Many are holdovers from Bill Clinton’s White House; the rest stand out for their small “c” conservatism and competence. Whatever happened to change?

That, anyway, is the widely taken impression from the president-elect’s personnel choices in recent weeks. Economic policy had already been placed in the hands of a phalanx of Clintonites. This week we got Mr Obama’s national security team. If this latest set of appointments carried a single message it was a promise of no sudden swerves.

Familiar faces, Washington observers yawn, promise familiar policies. After all, what stronger signal could Mr Obama have sent of the premium he now places on continuity than the decision to keep Robert Gates at the Pentagon? There will be no rush from Iraq.

True, after the ruinous tenure of Donald Rumsfeld, the current defence secretary has been a powerful and intelligent force for sanity during the twilight years of the present administration. Mr Gates may have chosen his predecessor well, but he still gets deserved plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike. It is just that his reappointment scarcely signals the promised rupture with George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

The choice of James Jones, a retired marine general, to head the National Security Council seems to speak to the same cautious centrism. General Jones, like Mr Gates, wins praise from across the partisan divide. A military man from a military family, he understands the limits as well as the utility of military power. Among America’s allies he is viewed as someone with the experience and wisdom to see the US as the rest of the world sees it. No one would call him a radical.

There have been plenty of voices urging caution on Mr Obama. James Steinberg, one of the sharpest minds in Mr Clinton’s White House, was a strong contender for the NSC job. Now he is tipped for the deputy’s role at the state department. He recently wrote a book, published by the Brookings Institution, on the perils facing incoming presidents in the national security arena.

The advice offered to Mr Obama by Mr Steinberg and his co-author Kurt Campbell? “New presidents should not outrun their capacity to act effectively in their first months of office. Their focus should remain on filling the top jobs and carefully getting up to speed before implementing new policies.” To my mind, all this seems eminently sensible. Think of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. But what of the legions of voters eagerly anticipating transformation?

The commentariat has decided that Mr Obama has stored up another sort of excitement by making Hillary Clinton his secretary of state. Some say the appointment of his chief political rival reflects the president-elect’s boundless (and reckless?) self-confidence; others that inviting Mrs Clinton into the tent was born of narrow political calculation.

Supporters of Mr Obama are among those who think it will end in tears: even if Mrs Clinton proves a loyal servant to the president, her husband is certain to mess things up. As for new directions, Mrs Clinton voted for the Iraq war and has derided Mr Obama’s focus on diplomatic engagement as evidence he will be soft on America’s enemies.

The critics may turn out to be right, particularly when it comes to the unpredictability of the former president. The truth, though, is that we just do not know. The risks are obvious enough, but so too are the powerful incentives for the Clintons to make the relationship work.

The more interesting question, I think, is whether Mr Obama’s apparent conservatism militates against change; whether in opting for Washington heavyweights over faithful acolytes and for grey hair over youthful exuberance he has already ruled out a sharp change of course in America’s foreign policy. Will these strong personalities impose continuity? On two counts, I think the answer is no.

Even were Mr Obama’s instinct to lean towards caution – and the evidence is otherwise – circumstance demands a radical change in America’s attitude to the world. Steady as she goes is simply not an option in the face of a profound upheaval in the global geopolitical balance. To drift with the tides would be to be swept on to the rocks.

The point has been made eloquently by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and elder statesman of the Democratic party foreign policy establishment.

Delivering the Whitehead Lecture at London’s Chatham House, Mr Brzezinski observed that Mr Obama takes office in the midst of a global crisis of confidence in America’s capacity to exercise effective leadership in the world.

Overlay that with what Mr Brzezinski calls the two “transforming developments” on the world scene – the rise of great powers in Asia and an array of critical global challenges ranging from weapons proliferation to climate change and poverty – and inaction is not an option. Mr Obama can try to make the geopolitical weather or be buffeted by it.

Rhetorically at least, he seems to understand this. This week he repeated his commitment to ensure that the US retains the world’s foremost military. But he put the emphasis of his remarks on the need to deploy the full spectrum of America’s soft power.

Seen in this light, Mr Obama’s choice of foreign policy heavyweights is significant for its ambition rather than its caution. If he really does want to recast America’s relationship with the world, surrounding himself with seasoned players will make the task easier rather than harder. Why would a president who wanted to change things put the task in the hands of inexperienced acolytes?

Mr Obama said as much this week in presenting the new appointees: he relished strong personalities and strong opinions, but: “Understand I will be setting policy as president.” So if it does turn out that the new administration lacks the will or vision, it will be his failure not theirs – much as it has been with Mr Bush.

I have often heard it said that responsibility for ruining Mr Bush’s presidency lies with Mr Rumsfeld and with Richard Cheney, the vice-president. And it is true that these two figures have had a truly calamitous influence on US policy. Ultimately, though, Mr Bush made the calls. The same will be true of Mr Obama. In Truman’s adage, the buck stops with the president.

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