President-elect Barack Obama, at an event in Chicago today, announced his entire top-level national security team. The team includes another bevy of “heavyweights”, with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton named for secretary of State, Sec. of Defense Robert Gates to stay on, Eric Holder named for attorney general, Gov. Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security chief, Susan Rice for UN ambassador, and Gen. James Jones for national security adviser. VP-elect Joe Biden contextualized the nominations as right for “extraordinary times”.
The team is bipartisan, ideologically diverse, and represents a broad array of experience and preparation, that the president-elect has said will ensure he receives the best possible range of analysis and advice. Virginia senator John Warner said of Obama’s nominations:
The triumvirate of Gates, Clinton and Jones to lead Obama’s national security team instills great confidence at home and abroad, and further strengthens the growing respect for the president-elect’s courage and ability to exercise sound judgment in selecting the best and the brightest to implement our nation’s security policies.
In opening remarks in which he presented his guiding vision for crafting this particular team of talents, Obama said:
The national security challenges we face are just as grave —and just as urgent— as our economic crisis. We are fighting two wars. Old conflicts remain unresolved, and newly assertive powers have put strains on the international system. The spread of nuclear weapons raises the peril that the world’s deadliest technology could fall into dangerous hands. Our dependence on foreign oil empowers authoritarian governments and endangers our planet.
America must also be strong at home to be strong abroad. We need to provide education and opportunity for our citizens, so every American can compete with anyone, anywhere. And our economic power must sustain our military strength, our diplomatic leverage, and our global leadership.
His expression of the “common thread” uniting his approach to these challenges, that “in the 21st century, our destiny is shared with the world’s”, was echoed by Sen. Clinton, who spoke of the need to build strong alliances because the last eight years have shown the US cannot lead “by force alone” and that Americans alone cannot do the work of building a more just world. Obama would later remark that Sen. Clinton shares his belief that a bold, visionary diplomacy is needed to strengthen the American security and leadership position in the world.
Vice-president-elect Biden spoke of the qualifications and experience of the team, of his respect for the quality of Obama’s choices and anticipated doing serious work with the nominees to serve the security and diplomatic interests of the US in these times of an “extraordinary” convergence of crises. Biden closed his remarks by saying Obama’s selections illustrate the potential for the United States to lead “not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”.
Obama expressed condolences for the dead and for the nation of India, as well as concern for the security of Americans and for the capture of all those involved in the deaths of the six Americans who lost their lives in the Mumbai siege. “We’re going to have to bring the full force of our power, not only military, but also diplomatic and political, to deal with these threats”.
President-elect Obama also expressed support for the Bush administration’s actions so far in responding to the crisis. He added that he expects Pres. Zardari of Pakistan to follow through on his commitment to assist in the investigation and cooperate with India in its work to protect against the threat of these sort of incidents.
A key reason for choosing a diverse range of talents for these high-level diplomatic, legal and security posts, said Obama, was the need to cultivate a pool of competing ideas and avoid the pitfalls of “groupthink” — a pejorative term referring to situations where a series of individuals give up their individual discretion in order to reflexively adopt a common position. Such uncritical policy-making could pose a significant security risk, according to Obama’s philosophy of leadership, in such unsettled times.
Obama said his choices for these vital posts would not have agreed to serve and would not have been asked to serve, if they didn’t share “a core vision” for how best to serve the interests of the United States and its allies. He spoke of the need to focus on “rebuilding and strengthening alliances around the world” and “regain American leadership in all its dimensions”, suggesting each of the individuals standing with him today would be “effective” in doing this.
Of the range of views and the apparent strength of personalities, Obama told the press: “I will be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House, but understand, I will be setting policy” and referenced Pres. Harry Truman’s famed remark “The buck stops here”, saying he would be the ultimate decision-maker.
Obama said of his naming of Sen. Clinton for secretary of State that “it was not a lightbulb moment; I have always admired Sen. Clinton”, adding that “I have always believed that she is tough and smart and disciplined”. There is already talk of the team being able to work together, having already met and conferred on key points of policy, with the president-elect setting the agenda and getting the backing of each of today’s nominees.