THE phrase “team of rivals” has been on every pundit's lips since it became clear that Barack Obama would make Hillary Clinton his secretary of state. Coming from the title of a book about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, it seems to highlight that Mr Obama wants to hear dissenting opinions, including from his biggest personal rival, Mrs Clinton. But a look at his national-security line-up, which was officially announced on Monday December 1st, suggests a team that will probably gel reasonably well.
Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama sparred sharply during the primaries. Mrs Clinton voted for the Iraq war and touted her experience. Mr Obama called his stance against the war a virtue, along with his newness in Washington, DC, and his willingness to talk to America’s enemies such as Iran. Mrs Clinton responded that he was naive. But the two were posturing for the Democratic primary voters. In truth, their positions are not so far apart, even on the Iraq war, where both want withdrawal relatively soon.
Mr Obama’s other appointments suggest he is keeping to the centre ground, at least on foreign policy. Jim Jones will be his national-security adviser. The sharp-jawed former NATO commander and commandant of the Marine Corps looks the part of the hard man. But he was a harsh critic of Donald Rumsfeld’s Iraq strategy and a believer in using all the tools of American power-not just military ones. Since putting his uniform away, he has advised on the training of both Iraqi and Palestinian security forces, which will give him an insight into working with local allies.
Many thought that Susan Rice, a senior foreign-policy adviser during Mr Obama’s campaign, would get the national-security adviser’s job. Instead she will be ambassador to the United Nations, a lower-profile job than many had expected, given her closeness to Mr Obama. But the post will be returned to cabinet level, the status it had under Bill Clinton, thus Ms Rice will sit at the top table in Washington, DC, while being Mr Obama’s envoy in New York. This suggests that there will be a bigger role for multilateralism in Mr Obama's administration.
Mr Obama has dismayed many on the left of his party, but delighted centrists and the foreign-policy establishment, by deciding to keep Robert Gates as secretary of defence. Mr Gates replaced Mr Rumsfeld in 2006, and has overseen a big drop in violence in Iraq since the implementation of the “surge”. He may be a transitional figure until Mr Jones or someone else can step into the job, but the decision to keep him suggests that Mr Obama will not be scrambling to pull out of Iraq with undue haste.
Janet Napolitano will be his secretary of homeland security. As Arizona’s governor, she has experience both running a bureaucracy and keeping an eye on America’s border. She will need some nous to run the sprawling and widely criticised new department. But she is known as no Democratic softie, including on illegal immigration.
Mr Obama has made the point that he is no lefty peacenik. With a rival who supported the war, a lifelong warrior and a Republican secretary of defence in his top three foreign-policy jobs, the new young president wants the world (and critics at home) to see that he is no pushover. Will that mean that nothing much will change, disappointing many of his fans? Or will his tough advisers serve as useful cover for a new policy of talking to foes and substituting soft power for military force? For the president who campaigned saying “I’m not against all wars, I’m against dumb wars,” combining hard and soft may be no paradox.