Commentary Magazine


All Obama’s Generals

Listening carefully to the short nuggets of foreign policy discussion in last night’s debate, I was intrigued, and not for the first time, when General Jim Jones’s name was brought up. But not by the candidate you’d expect. It was Barack Obama:

If I’m interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate Joe Biden or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senator Foreign Relations Committee or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO,” he said during the debate. “Those are the people, Democrat and Republican, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House.

This is part of an effort Obama is making at winning the hearts and minds of future subordinates in the military. While doing this, Obama digs deep into McCain territory, in a way that I’m sure irritates the Republican candidate. Whether one likes what Obama does with these former military men, it must be said that he plays it much smarter than Bill Clinton did in the early 90’s. Instead of treating the military as an enemy entity, Obama is chasing the most popular generals, touting their names as if they were his old buddies. In fact, Jones–a retired marine general, former NATO commander, Middle East envoy for the Bush administration (an appointment some Israelis didn’t much like)–is a friend of McCain’s.

Mr. McCain also described Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander and Marine general, as one of his closest friends, adding he expected he would “play a key role.”

The repeated mentioning of Jones–his name was also mentioned as a VP candidate for Obama–is hardly an accident. Jones, like General Colin Powell, is someone Obama believes he can use in his administration (note this: general Wesley Clark, a Clinton supporter, is usually excluded from Obama’s list, even though Clark makes an effort to be seen as an asset to the campaign). Strengthening the “realist” faction of his team, bolstering the bipartisan image of his foreign policy, making the military more at ease with him–and as a side effect (don’t ever underestimate the personal agendas of politicians) making general David Petraeus seem smaller.

Truth is, Jones can probably work with the Obama team. I’m hardly the first one to note that roles have reversed in the last decades and that the Democrats are those now touting a more realist foreign policy agenda while Republicans have the more idealistic approach. This was clearly visible in the 2004 race between Bush and John Kerry, and it is in play again now, although both McCain and Obama aren’t the typical representatives of the parties they stand for.

One thing is for sure: if Obama is serious about people like Jones and Lugar (and Bob Gates as Defense Secretary)–and I think he is–his administration will provide for some good entertainment for newspeople. These generals might easily identify with the policies Obama lays out in the debates and in policy papers, but will hardly be the optimal members of any foreign policy dream-team. The battles between Obama’s supporters on the Left and Obama’s in-house practitioners of the Right have the potential to be very messy.

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