Dec 3, 2008

World - US;Obama's team of rivals

Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

With his new national security team, Barack Obama looks set to hit the ground running when it comes to the thicket of foreign policy challenges that his administration will face.

The trusted hands he has put in place will enable him to devote the necessary attention to the economic crisis at home, without ignoring a world that is awaiting some form of renewed American engagement.

The question many observers continue to ask is whether the six high-profile, powerful personalities will work together or whether this recreation of Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals" will find teamwork difficult.

The most notable rival in the team is of course the former first lady, with whom Mr Obama sparred repeatedly over the course of a long and bitter primary campaign for the Democratic Party nomination.

She said he had no foreign policy experience, he criticised her vote in support of the war in Iraq, to name but a few differences.

Overall, however, their worldviews are not that divergent, and by picking heavyweights like Mrs Clinton and current Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Mr Obama deflects any criticism that he is naive.

Mountain of problems

It took plenty of negotiation for Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton to seal the deal - and as part of the final agreement, former President Bill Clinton was forced to unveil the names of the more than 200,000 donors to his charitable foundation.

He has also agreed to let the state department review his future speeches and business activities.

It is still unclear how Bill Clinton will fit into the picture, but the focus will primarily be on Mrs Clinton's working relationship with the president-elect.

"The problem you get with Hillary Clinton to a certain degree is whether she looks at a crisis as a way to define who she is, or what her tenure in the state department will look like," says Steve Clemons, from the liberal New America Foundation.

"Obama thinks he's got the ability to be his own secretary of state, and so he's going to be very engaged, no distance between them. But what happens, though, when we have a crisis, or the economic issues take precedent? She's going to have a lot of room to define, in my view, the way she goes.

"He's got to find the time in his schedule to be engaged with her all the time, she wanted a direct line to him, and she's going to have it, and he's got to be there for her."

The minute Mrs Clinton moves into her office, a mountain of problems awaits her.

The troop withdrawal from Iraq that Mr Obama promised during the campaign will require close monitoring if the country is not to descend into renewed violence.

The attack on Mumbai and the tensions between India and Pakistan may derail the president-elect's plan for a regional approach to stabilising Afghanistan, one of his priorities.

And like so many presidents before him, he wants to tackle the intractable Middle East conflict.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton will bring experience and weight to that process.

But while Israelis welcomed her appointment, the Arab world sounded more cautious, disappointed that there are no new faces in the administration.

Many doubt that she will be able to bring about a breakthrough in the current deadlock.

Multi-faceted approach

Central to many of the administration's efforts on Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere will be Iran, a country that Mr Obama has said he would try to engage.

But Tehran may not be too keen to talk to his envoy.

"I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran [if it attacked Israel]," Mrs Clinton said in March during an interview with ABC news.

"In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them."

At the time, Mr Obama said she sounded too much like George W Bush, but he too has warned that he will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons - the question now is how to combine those two approaches into one.

Beyond the immediate crisis management, the two Democrats have said they want to improve America's standing in the world.

It was a recurrent theme of Monday's statements by the members of the national security team.

On the campaign trail, Mr Obama often made references to "changing the world".

There is a fair amount of goodwill around the world awaiting Hillary Clinton, but rivals, like China and Russia, are not waiting with open arms.

While Mr Obama's team of known faces may disappoint those who hoped for radical change, observers say the combination of military and diplomatic skills may produce new ideas.

"The Obama difference that is visible by just looking at the man [means he may] create new space for diplomacy and new options that right now [aren't obvious]," said Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

"Obama has the chance to be a great president in that he inherits some really monstrous problems and finds solutions for them that you wouldn't expect. Right now it would be hard to say how he'd do it, but that doesn't mean he can't."

What Mr Obama's choice signals is a clear realisation that many of the foreign policy issues at hand are connected and will require a multi-faceted approach.

"When you put Bob Gates, Jim Jones, and Hillary Clinton together on the same team, you're getting a picture of someone who wants to change the strategic map of the United States and its engagement with the rest of the world," said Mr Clemons from New American Foundation.

"This is a leapfrog strategy, not an incremental strategy, looking at what the clear challenges are: Iran, Israel, Palestine, Syria, stabilizing Iraq, looking at Pakistan and Afghanistan. All of these problems are interrelated. You cannot silo one problem off from another one."

Mr Obama has now put in place the executors of the vision he spelled out during his campaign, a vision that has become increasingly more nuanced and pragmatic.

And he will be hoping that his team of rivals can work together to reshape America's image and security role around the world.

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