Whatever doubts may have existed about U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s foreign policy should be put to rest since he announced his national security team. The group is notable for its experience and levelheadedness. Perhaps most significant is the self-confidence the selections reveal: Mr. Obama has no qualms about including political rivals, former Cold War warriors and people with more experience than he in his administration. It is a team well-suited to tackle the security challenges of a world in transformation.
After weeks of a spectacle worthy of Shakespeare — will he offer the job? will she accept it? — Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to become secretary of state. That selection is most notable for the fact that Mrs. Clinton ran the memorable commercial during the primaries that asked how voters would feel knowing that it was Mr. Obama answering the ominous 3 a.m. phone call. Apparently, the president-elect reasoned that the best thing he could do is have her take that call.
It is a smart move. Mrs. Clinton has strong foreign policy credentials and a reputation for considered, centrist thinking. She is viewed by many as a hawk. She makes up for the shortcomings of a man she called “irresponsible and naive” during the campaign. And it may well be that bringing her into the Cabinet is one way of neutralizing a potential adversary in Congress.
Similarly, the decision to retain Mr. Robert Gates as secretary of Defense will soothe fears about Mr. Obama’s lack of experience in foreign and security policy. Mr. Gates is the consummate Washington foreign policy insider, having served at the CIA, the National Security Council and the Pentagon. He was brought in to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld, and has done an outstanding job. Keeping Mr. Gates also serves a domestic political purpose: It ensures a bipartisan Cabinet, as Mr. Obama promised.
The third member of the national security triumvirate is National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones. He is a former NATO commander who authored a report on Afghanistan that blasted the Bush administration’s policy, and who made campaign appearances with Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
Each of these individuals has expressed differences with Mr. Obama since he began his campaign, although most of those disagreements are smaller than they seem. All recognize that U.S. foreign and security policy needs to be renovated to adapt to a new international environment. They embrace the president-elect’s desire to “rebalance America’s national security portfolio” amid two wars and the extraordinary drain on U.S. resources and the stain on its image they have created.
Mr. Obama has fulfilled his promise to find the best and the brightest to staff his administration. Those individuals generally come with big egos; at the press conference announcing the team, he acknowledged as much. But he said he picked them because he is “a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. That’s how the best decisions are made.” He also made it clear that they answer to him: “I will be responsible for the vision this team carries out and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made.” Recalling former U.S. President Harry Truman, he added, “the buck will stop with me.”
What is that vision? It appears to emphasize the need to use other elements of America’s diplomatic tool kit. Mr. Obama will rely less on the military — while retaining it as a last resort — and expand the diplomatic corps and aid workers. The United States will try to prevent conflicts before they start through preventive diplomacy and state building and reconstruction. This vision is not new, but it is as yet unrealized. Financing it will be especially challenging.
While some in Japan worry that an Obama presidency could sideline Japan, this agenda is in reality an opportunity. These new emphases play to Japanese strengths. This country has much to contribute to efforts to build national capacity and assist nations that need stability and prosperity. Mr. Obama’s agenda will put a premium on partnership: Tokyo must step up to play its role and demonstrate its worth and value as a partner and ally.
Vision is not enough, however. The U.S. has a huge foreign policy and national security bureaucracy. Effective administrators are crucial to the success of any administration. That’s why Mr. Obama’s decision to employ professionals, while certain to rile some Democratic activists seeking “change” in Washington, is the right approach. Previous Democratic presidents have brought new teams into Washington, and have seen their plans blocked at every turn by insiders with agendas of their own. These seasoned hands know the institutions they are overseeing and know how to make them work.
Mr. Obama’s readiness to pick strong-willed individuals with resumes that overshadow his own shows intelligence and confidence. He understands that the demands of the world and the nation he will lead require exceptional individuals. Talent, not loyalty, must be the critical determinant for his administration. But he also knows that he is the president and that they must answer to him. It is his responsibility to keep his team in line and to get them to pursue his vision. That is real leadership. His thinking should reassure his nation and its friends.
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