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Obama Crafts Team to Rethink Foreign Policy Challenges

December 1, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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President-elect Obama announced his national security team Monday, choosing Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary. Analysts including former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and Sen. Jack Reed discuss the picks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After spending three days last week rolling out his economic team, the president-elect switched gears today, in one fell swoop naming six top members of his national security team.

BARACK OBAMA, President-elect of the United States: The time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama confirmed weeks of speculation in introducing New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, his one-time opponent for the Democratic nomination, as his pick for secretary of state.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State-designate: America is a place founded on the idea that everyone should have the right to live up to his or her God-given potential. And it is that same ideal that must guide America’s purpose in the world today.

And while we are determined to defend our freedoms and liberties at all costs, we also reach out to the world again, seeking common cause and higher ground.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The selection of Robert Gates to stay on as secretary of defense marks the first time a Pentagon chief has been asked to serve a president of a different political party.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Mindful that we are engaged in two wars and face other serious challenges at home and around the world, and with a profound sense of personal responsibility to and for our men and women in uniform and their families, I must do my duty as they do theirs. How could I do otherwise?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Also in the president-elect’s cabinet, his choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

For homeland security secretary, border state Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona.

To be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. She was an adviser to Mr. Obama during the campaign.

And his pick for national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who was NATO commander from 2003 to 2006.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden said Mr. Obama had assembled one of the most talented national security teams ever.

SEN. JOE BIDEN, Vice President-elect of the United States: Each member shares our conviction that strength and wisdom must go hand in hand. Each member believes as we do that America’s security is not a partisan issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president-elect then took questions from reporters, one about potential conflicts on the team.

JOURNALIST: You’ve selected a number of high-profile people for your national security team. How can you ensure that the staff that you are assembling is going to be a smoothly functioning team of rivals and not a clash of rivals?

BARACK OBAMA: They would not have agreed to join my administration and I would not have asked them to be part of this administration unless we shared a core vision of what’s needed to keep the American people safe and to ensure prosperity here at home and peace abroad.

I assembled this team because I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that’s how the best decisions are made.

One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think, and everybody agrees with everything, and there’s no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I’m going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.

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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Obama was also asked how he came to pick Clinton, given the barbs that were exchanged during the primary.

JOURNALIST: I’m wondering whether you could talk about the evolution of your views of her credentials since the spring.

BARACK OBAMA: Look, I mean, I think this is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were generated during the course of the campaign. No, I understand. And you’re having fun. But — and there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I’m not — I’m not faulting it.

But, look, I think if you look at the statements that Hillary Clinton and I have made outside of the heat of a campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure. And in order to do that, we have to combine military power with strength and diplomacy. 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.

I believe that there’s no more effective advocate than Hillary Clinton for that well-rounded view of how we advance American interests.

Weighing in on Obama's picks

Philip Zelikow
Former State Department Official
What President-elect Obama has done [...] is to think of the administration as a team and compose it that way. He's done that with the economic team; he's done that now with the national security team. And I think it's terrific.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president-elect also reiterated his intent to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, but said he would meet with Gates and commanders on the ground before deciding how to proceed.

For more on today's announcement, we get three views.

Madeleine Albright served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. Her latest book is "Memo to the President-elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership."

Jack Reed is a Democratic senator from Rhode Island. He serves on the Armed Services Committee.

And Philip Zelikow is a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He's now a professor of history at the University of Virginia.

Thank you all for being with us.

Madeleine Albright, to you first. Madam Secretary, what do you make of this national security team?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Former Secretary of State: I think it's a terrific team. I think it is very strong. It is a team.

I do think, as President-elect Obama said, there will be strong views and that he and the country will benefit from having an exchange of views in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philip Zelikow, what would you add?

PHILIP ZELIKOW, University of Virginia: I want you to note that he's picked them and presented them as a team. Usually, when people speculate about these jobs, it's, well, who would be the best secretary of state? Who would be the best national security adviser?

What you're looking for from the point of view of the president is the composition of the team. The chemistry of the team in some ways is more important than the chemistry of any of the individual elements. You're creating a compound, and the team will end up having a distinctive character.

When this president came into office in 2001, people thought it was a glittering array of talents, all this experience. But the chemistry of the team in some ways didn't realize some of the hopes people had for it.

So what President-elect Obama has done, which a lot of experts like me have been urging a lot of president-elects to do, is to think of the administration as a team and compose it that way. He's done that with the economic team; he's done that now with the national security team. And I think it's terrific.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask Sen. Reed, both from an individual standpoint and from a team standpoint, what would you add?

SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, I think both Madeleine and Phil have made excellent points. These individuals are pragmatists. They are realists. They have temperaments that will make them not only individually significant contributors to national security, but together I think they'll make an extraordinary contribution.

And the other key factor is to illustrate it is the self-confidence and the genuine self-confidence and well-deserved self-confidence of the president of picking such strong personalities.

I think he understands, as he said so eloquently, he will make the choices, the final policy decisions, and be responsible for it, but he'll insist upon sort of a very vigorous debate. And that speaks volumes about President-elect Obama.

A '21st-century-oriented team'

Madeleine Albright
Former Secretary of State
I think what this team is, is very forward-oriented. And all of them spoke in some form or another about the importance of the 21st-century challenges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Albright, the New York Times was pointing out today that Sen. Clinton, Senator -- that Gates, Secretary Gates, and James Jones all have records more hawkish than the president-elect. What does that say about him, about what direction he wants to take national security in?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I'm not sure I fully agree with that assessment, but I think that certainly President-elect Obama has said that he wants to have a realistic foreign policy, he wants to return America to a position of leadership, he understands the combination of force and diplomacy, and that this is a non-ideological team.

Also, one of the other parts that I think is so important, Judy, is this is a 21st-century-oriented team. I remember thinking about the Bush team that they were sparkly, but they basically had not looked at what the '90s were about. They had skipped over all of that.

And I think what this team is, is very forward-oriented. And all of them spoke in some form or another about the importance of the 21st-century challenges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Zelikow, a non-ideological team?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: It is a team that's not ideological in the sense of it's not a team that's associated with the Democratic Party's ideology. I mean, Gates is in the administration now. Jim Jones has been working as a special envoy for Secretary Rice for more than a year-and-a-half in the Middle East.

This is not a team that's being picked because they've hit particular litmus tests. It's a team I think they've picked, frankly, because they're looking at the need for change in national security affairs in two ways.

First, in Afghanistan, I think they're looking at a radical change of strategy. They're going to need to put that change of strategy in place during the winter so that they'll have forces ready with a new strategy by the time the fighting season returns in the spring.

That means they need to keep continuity at defense, and they need an experienced hand with NATO and Afghanistan in the White House.

And the other area of change is, I think, President-elect Obama really wants to hit the energy and climate issues pretty hard. There's a heavy diplomatic agenda for that in the first year.

And Jim Jones actually, beyond the background as a Marine and with NATO, actually has done a lot of work on energy issues recently. And it means he's got a guy in the West Wing who knows energy, and so he doesn't have to put an energy and climate czar in the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Reed, what about the priorities of the president? When you look at this team and look at their expertise, what does it tell you?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, it says to me that, first, he's going to try to move more resources, as Phil Zelikow suggests, into Afghanistan and also to broaden diplomacy from simply a predominantly military response to a more diplomatic response.

And I think Senator Clinton will be superb in that regard. Her reputation, her experience, her access, all of that will contribute significantly.

And I think, also, too, he's trying to ensure that the process ahead in Iraq, the redeployment is carried out in a very safe and conscientious way, but clearly, to follow through on what's just happened with the status-of-forces agreement, that the direction in Iraq is redeploying forces out, allowing more forces into Afghanistan, but also to allow American military forces a needed respite from an operational tempo that has been severe.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Judy, I also think that what he's trying to do and will do successfully, both with Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice, is to re-introduce America to the rest of the world.

There are many other countries to which we have not paid attention in a long time. And I think both Sen. Clinton and Susan Rice know various other parts of the world, their needs, their interests, the importance of alliance structure, looking at how the United Nations can be reformed and really supported.

And so it's a very broad-based agenda in terms of the way that that team has been put together.

And as far -- I have been critical of the Bush administration for its unilateral foreign policy, but also its uni-dimensional foreign policy. And what we're going to see now is much more diplomatic activity and economic activity in other parts of the world than just the war zones.

Policy change in Afghanistan

Sen. Jack Reed
(D) Rhode Island
Gen. Jones has not only had a distinguished career as a senior commander, but he led Marines in combat. He understands that the decisions that this president will make are ultimately carried out by young men and women across the globe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about what we just heard from -- both from Phil Zelikow and from Sen. Reed about Afghanistan? Is that the place we should look for the principal, early change in policy?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think that there President-elect Obama has talked about the necessity of changing our policies in Afghanistan, but the whole area of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India clearly are, I think, probably the most dangerous in the world. There's always vying for what is the most dangerous, but that combination.

And so I think a lot of energy is going to be spent not only on the force structure and restructuring in Afghanistan, but also trying to make sure that Pakistan and India stay peaceful.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Reed, you were advising Sen. Obama throughout this campaign. I want to come back to that statement we heard him make today.

He said, "I'm a strong believer in strong personalities, strong opinions." He said, "The danger in the White House is of group-think and everybody agrees, there are no dissenting views." Why is that so important to him? And what does this team say to you about how strongly he feels about this?

SEN. JACK REED: Well, it underscores what he said, that was, basically, one of the dangers is that everyone tells you the same story. They don't provide the alternate case. They don't prevent the discouraging and dispiriting facts; they tell you what they think the president wants to hear.

And I think Sen. Obama is quite capable of listening to dissenting opinions, to make a sound judgment, and then to rally support for his decision among his cabinet secretaries and among the government and among the American people.

And I think also, too, that he is someone who wants a broad range of experience. I was particularly encouraged that he selected Gen. Jones. Gen. Jones has not only had a distinguished career as a senior commander, but he led Marines in combat. He understands that the decisions that this president will make are ultimately carried out by young men and women across the globe.

That's an important aspect to have. And I think Sen. Obama, soon-to-be President Obama, recognized that. And that signals to me another reason why I think he's put together an excellent team.

Strong opinions, dissenting views

Madeleine Albright
Former Secretary of State
The sign of a good national security adviser is -- and I put it this way -- he or she has to break the eggs and ultimately try to make an omelette out of them. And if the national security adviser can't do that, you take the eggs to the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phil Zelikow, quickly, how do you see this matter of strong opinions, dissenting views?

PHILIP ZELIKOW: I'm not sure you get the strong -- everybody wants truth-tellers. And they believe it. Whether you actually get truth-telling depends on what kind of process you run.

This turns a lot on Jones. Sen. Clinton is a politician. Blunt candor in places where it might leak out is not a quality that politicians ordinarily prize.

It's going to be up to Jim Jones to run a process that really draws out blunt statements that have analytic clarity to develop policy. And he's inheriting a policy-development process that's had some really serious problems in both Democratic and Republican administrations for more than 15 years.

It's not a good quality policy process. It hasn't been for a long time. He has a heavy burden to try to build that up as he faces a formidable agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Will he get this vigorous debate?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think he will. And I think that Gen. Jones will be a good national security adviser. When we were in office, we had good national security advisers who did, in fact, elicit a lot of different opinions.

The sign of a good national security adviser is -- and I put it this way -- he or she has to break the eggs and ultimately try to make an omelette out of them. And if the national security adviser can't do that, you take the eggs to the president.

So the bottom line here is you have to elicit those strong opinions. And that's the sign when the process works. And it has not worked for the last eight years. And so it's important, and I think Gen. Jones will do a great job on that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Sen. Reed, to you finally. How well will this team work together?

SEN. JACK REED: I'm sorry. I can't hear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How well do you think this team will work together?

SEN. JACK REED: I think they'll work together exceptionally well. I've had the privilege to work with many of them.

Temperamentally, they are committed to the goals of President Obama. And they're also, I think, people individually who have throughout their careers been cooperative and collaborative. I think that's a very good sign for a cohesive and an effective team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Jack Reed, Philip Zelikow, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, thank you, all three.

SEN. JACK REED: Thank you.


GWEN IFILL: And a correction. We referred to Defense Secretary Gates as the first to serve at the Pentagon from a different party. There have been other defense secretaries of a different party as the president.