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Obama’s Picks

According to the latest news reports, President-elect Obama will nominate a national security team next week that is stunning in its moderation. The headliners–Bob Gates staying at Defense, Hillary Clinton becoming Secretary of State, retired General Jim Jones taking over the NSC–have already been more or less reported, or at least much speculated on. The lower-level picks are just as encouraging:

Democrats familiar with the national-security event early next week said they also expect James Steinberg, who was deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration, to be named deputy secretary of State; Susan Rice, Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser on the campaign, to be named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command and a veteran of the NSC, Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be named the director of national intelligence.

The only outright leftist in the bunch is Susan Rice, and she is being shunted aside to a post where the premium is on rhetoric, not action. She will presumably be called upon to explain and defend policies formulated by the senior national security team which includes two men who are not Democrats–Gates and Jones–and one woman who is on the rightward side of the Democratic Party when it comes to national security issues (and paid a price for it in the primaries).

As someone who was skeptical of Obama’s moderate posturing during the campaign, I have to admit that I am gobsmacked by these appointments , most of which could just as easily have come from a President McCain. (Jim Jones is an old friend of McCain’s, and McCain almost certainly would have asked Gates to stay on as well.) This all but puts an end to the 16-month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, the unconditional summits with dictators, and other foolishness that once emanated from the Obama campaign. His appointments suggest that, if anything, his administration will have a Reapolitiker, rather than a liberal, bent, although Clinton and Steinberg at State should be powerful voices for “neo-liberalism” which is not so different in many respects from “neo-conservativism”. Both, for instance, support humanitarian interventions in places like Darfur and Bosnia.

Combined with the moderation of the economic team that Obama has just named, I would say his administration already far exceeds expectations, and he hasn’t even taken office yet.

The real test, of course, will be seeing how this all-star lineup deals with real-world crises. It helps to recall that George W. Bush-another newcomer to Washington-arrived with a raft of heavy hitters: Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney. Simply to recite those names today is to make obvious that even the most distinguished statesmen may not congeal into an effective team. That is a danger to watch out for in the Obama administration, but the new team deserves the benefit of the doubt and all best wishes for success from Republicans and Democrats alike. Only churlish partisans of both the left and the right can be unhappy with the emerging tenor of our nation’s new leadership.



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