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Obama's Weak National Security Team

Obama's Weak National Security Team

By Melvin A. Goodman
The Public Record

Sixteen years ago, President-elect Bill Clinton headed for Washington with a national security team that was unprepared for a new age of foreign policy marked by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Clinton proclaimed upon arrival that “foreign policy is not what I came here to do,” and the weakness of his national security team confirmed his attitude.

Unlike his economic team, which was marked by such stars as Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin, Gene Sperling, and Laura D’Andrea Tyson, Clinton’s foreign policy team was mediocre at best. Members of it were soon replaced. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin lasted less than a year; CIA director Jim Woolsey lasted less than two years; Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national security adviser Tony Lake lasted through Clinton’s first term, but neither distinguished himself.

President-elect Barack Obama’s appointments similarly demonstrate that his focus is on economic policy and that he is willing to put foreign policy on the backburner. His economic team is star-studded and clearly prepared to take on the economic challenges we face. His national security team is comprised of disparate individuals with world views at odds with each other and with Obama. There appears to be no commitment to reverse the militarization of American foreign policy and no willingness to confront a Pentagon that the Bush administration has placed at the top of the decision-making ladder on foreign policy. The Bush legacy includes the weakening of the State Department and the militarization of the intelligence community, which finds nearly all of the intelligence departments and agencies led by active-duty and retired general officers.

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Obama also has inherited a Clinton legacy marked by an unacceptable level of military influence over U.S. national security and foreign policy. Clinton capitulated to military opposition to agreements dealing with the International Criminal Court, a ban on landmines, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Chemical Warfare Convention. These decisions by Clinton need to be reversed. During the campaign, Obama took strong positions on stopping ethnic violence in Africa and elsewhere, but he should understand that the Pentagon opposes humanitarian missions for military force. It dragged its heels on intervention in Bosnia to stop ethnic cleansing and advocated that the United States block U.N. efforts to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

Obama is approaching inauguration with a secretary of defense who does not support many of the foreign policy positions that the president-elect took during the campaign; a secretary of state who was chosen for domestic political reasons; and without two key intelligence advisers—the director of national intelligence (the so-called intelligence tsar) and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

His national security adviser, retired General Jim Jones, while a solid performer, has never been known as a big thinker on foreign policy issues; his appointment, moreover, places another key position in the hands of the military. The election appeared to give Obama a popular mandate to reverse the wrongful policies of the Bush administration on arms control and disarmament, the use of force and preemptive attack, the unilateral pursuit of U.S. goals, and the unlawful policies of torture and rendition. Unfortunately, the composition of Obama’s team does not suggest a smooth transition toward reversing these policies.

Obama’s team consists of key figures who voted for the war in Iraq (Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton) or defended it (Gates and Jones). Both Gates and Jones have declared that a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq is “against our national interest.” There is no member of the national security team who recognizes the danger in increasing our military presence in Afghanistan or questions the likelihood of establishing a stable government in Kabul.

Pulling troops out of Iraq and sending many of these troops to Afghanistan will simply create new and more difficult problems in an area where our only goal should be limiting the movement of groups devoted to international terrorism against U.S. interests. Secretary of Defense Gates, moreover, supports a variety of positions that will complicate Obama’s overall agenda, including a Reliable Replacement Warhead for our strategic missile force, national missile defense at home, missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, and immediate NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Despite the problems within the intelligence community and the CIA, Obama apparently has paid little attention to changing directors in that key area of national security. His candidate for CIA director, John Brennan, was actively engaged in implementing and defending the CIA’s corrupt activities during the Bush administration. Brennan took himself out of the running for CIA director in the wake of liberal opposition.

Nevertheless, Obama is still relying on advice on the intelligence community from individuals who took part in questionable actions of the Bush era, including the corruption of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War, and the use of torture and abuse of suspected terrorists. These individuals, including Brennan and former CIA deputy director John McLaughlin, were involved in efforts to cover-up these abuses and others such as the Agency’s handling of the shoot-down of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001.

Although he criticized the militarization of the intelligence community during the campaign, Obama now appears poised to name a retired admiral as director of national intelligence and, even worse, retain retired general Michael Hayden as director of CIA. Hayden was the director of the National Security Agency when the policy of warrantless eavesdropping was implemented, and he has been a dedicated defender of CIA’s rendition and detention programs.

For the past sixteen years, the Clinton and Bush administrations have operated by the seat of their pants in the international arena, lacking any strategic policy planning. Obama appeared to offer better. Now, continuity appears to be the name of the game. The National Security Council has been given to a retired marine general who does not know the foreign policy community; this will complicate his ability to create a strategic-minded staff.

The retention of Bob Gates as secretary of defense on an interim basis means that, while he may not appoint his own staff, he will probably have a veto on the appointments of the Obama administration. Even worse, he will be advancing his own policy agenda. The secretary of state will have to get up to speed on difficult arms control issues and will need to rebuild a department that has grown increasingly irrelevant. With these inadequacies in personnel, it will be difficult to reform the policy process and “flip the switch” on a series of Bush administration decisions that have harmed the interests of the United States.


Melvin A. Goodman is senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. He is a professor of international security studies and chairman of the international relations department at the National War College. Goodman worked at the CIA from 1966 to 1990 and was division chief and senior analyst at the agency's Office of Soviet Affairs from 1976 to 1986.

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