For President Barack Obama, last week was rather like a major exam on his skills as a diplomat and architect of foreign policy. He can count on being tested again and again by unexpected events. But in his debut at the United Nations and as host to the G-20 economic powers in Pittsburgh, Obama was given more scrutiny by foreign leaders and domestic constituencies than at any other time in his first year in office.
There were no historic breakthroughs but, as far as we know, there were also no gaffes – at least in part because of his ability to find the right words to make his points without offending others.
Official Washington is starting to realize that in addition to his personal skills, Obama has assembled a highly professional and effective national security team that serves him and the nation very well.
There was no guarantee that this would be the case. Before he was elected, Obama had never faced the challenge of recruiting, assigning and organizing an administration. His exposure to national security issues consisted of four years of hardly notable service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the insights gleaned from his youthful years in Indonesia.
His first – and in some ways most important – decision was to ask Robert Gates, George Bush’s secretary of defense, to remain in charge of the Pentagon. Gates was anything but an obvious choice. Obama had campaigned as a sharp critic of Bush policy in Iraq and had clearly signaled that he would insist on a new approach to Afghanistan. Keeping the boss of the old policies was counterintuitive – and offensive to some of Obama’s Democratic allies.
But Obama recognized Gates’ strengths. And he bolstered the team when he picked retired Marine general Jim Jones as his national security adviser, another widely respected veteran of past administrations and a man of great self-discipline and few ego needs.
The choice of Hillary Clinton was the most dramatic, given their history as rivals in a protracted battle for the nomination. The full story has not been told of why he wanted her and why she wanted to be secretary of state. But so far, it is working better than almost anyone could have imagined.
Clinton has applied her famous work ethic to the challenges of Foggy Bottom but seems very comfortable to define her role as the chief executor of Obama’s foreign policy, not an independent power center. When she and Gates were chosen, the journalistic cliché was “the team of rivals,” echoing Lincoln. But they are a team – period.
In Vice President Biden, Obama picked a vivid personality with more years of experience in foreign policy than almost anyone else in Congress.
Biden, as is his wont, has at times strayed from the Obama line – but the president clearly trusts him and has given him major responsibilities.
What got me thinking about the skill with which this team has functioned was the announcement Sept. 17 that the United States was abandoning its plans for anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic and, instead of targeting long-range Iranian missiles, would use seaborne weapons to combat Iran’s short-range missiles.
The decision was explained on the basis of fresh intelligence showing that the Iranians had shifted their program to emphasize the short-range weapons, and this will allow countermeasures to be in place much earlier than the original plan.
I’m told by the White House that the president asked for a review of the missile defense plans back in March, that the Pentagon held some 120 internal meetings on the issue, that the National Security Council staff conferred 15 to 18 times, culminating in four sessions of the NSC deputies in August and September and two meetings of the principals – the Cabinet officers and the other statutory members, preparing for a presidential decision. All this without a single leak. The inclusiveness of the process was affirmed by the immediate public endorsements by the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies.
In the end, Gates, who had signed off on the original Bush plan in 2006, emerged as one of the most forceful advocates for redoing it – another example of his intellectual and political courage.
Tougher tests undoubtedly await, but so far this team looks really good.
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