Beyond the criticism – from both the left and the right – that his Cabinet appointments don’t represent the promised change, President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team represents a cohesive vision for reshaping America’s role on the international stage. That vision appropriately emphasizes diplomacy and economic development over military intervention as the primary means of stabilizing countries and promoting democratic governments.
Yes, Robert Gates, who will stay on, for at least a year, as secretary of defense, has disagreed with Mr. Obama about a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But, Secretary Gates, who is a sharp contrast to the bombastic Donald Rumsfeld, whom he replaced during President Bush’s second term, has given a series of speeches about the need to use the full complement of American power – diplomacy, reconstruction, economic assistance – to deal with terrorism and other threats.
“The lines separating war, peace, diplomacy and development have become more blurred and no longer fit the neat organizational charts of the 20th century,” Secretary Gates said this summer. He also called for increased spending for the State Department.
Those lines certainly are blurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that will dominate foreign and military policy during the early months of the Obama administration. On Iraq, Mr. Obama said he is committed to his plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops within 16 months. Secretary Gates continues to say that a withdrawal timetable will be dictated by events on the ground in Iraq. Both objectives can be met if more emphasis is placed on reconstruction and development, which has long been under way. Further, the Iraqi Parliament last month approved an agreement requiring American combat forces to pull out of country’s cities by June 2009. All American troops are to leave the country by the end of 2011.
On Afghanistan, the new president will be heavily reliant on the advice of his choice for national security adviser, Gen. James Jones. Earlier this year, the former NATO commander offered a stinging assessment of the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan. Gen. Jones blamed the United States’ failure to develop a consistent, dependable reconstruction and assistance program for its failure to rout the Taliban. Instead, the U.S. tried to militarily defeat the Taliban only to see it re-emerge because it offered the financial assistance and stability that most Afghans lacked.
It is encouraging to see that the Obama administration appears to be taking these lessons to heart and building its policies around them.
A chief architect will be Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom Mr. Obama has tapped to be secretary of state. She, too, has talked of the need to re-establish America as a moral leader in the world. Choosing a former rival for this post shows that the president-elect is not afraid to work with people who will challenge his ideas.
“One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there’s no discussion and there are no dissenting views,” he said Monday, in announcing his national security team. “So I’m going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.”
That debate is overdue.