Debating Who Obama Picks is Relevant to What His Administration Will Do


obama economic team twn.jpg
I’ve been saying for some time that the day after Obama’s election, all sorts of policy and personality battles would unfold around him.
This is happening as predicted, and the tension, backbiting, and jostling for position is fraying the nerves of many who are highest on the list of candidates Obama is considering for senior positions throughout the government.
One quite senior national security personality close to Obama told me that “I hate this. I hate this focus on people and personalities. It’s the ideas that matter. I’m just sick of this back and forth about appointments and the people. It just doesn’t matter.”
I actually agree with the commenter that it should be policy that we focus on — but where I disagree is that different personalities in a job telegraph different policies.
The notion that everything will derive from America’s new great leader and inform every dimension of the work and objectives of those appointed is probably naive. People do matter because of the ideas that they bring to the table. Thus debating the “who” is also part of debating the “what”.
We have already seen that John Bolton differed from Zalmay Khalilzad. Bob Gates was a radical departure in views and performance from Don Rumsfeld. The battle over John Bolton’s confirmation at the United Nations in which this writer and blog were so involved was never about John Bolton personally, it was about stopping the further ascension of Jesse Helms-style pugnacious nationalism.
Dennis Ross, in the Democratic Party case, has different views of global affairs and a different sense of strategic priorities and how to approach them than James Steinberg. Susan Rice, who along with Gayle Smith, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Anthony Lake and Samantha Power, is a harbinger of an important new discussion the nation needs to have on 21st century national security threats and global justice does not have the same “structuralist” and “realist” tilts of a Charles Kupchan, Rand Beers, Robert Hutchings, Fareed Zakaria, or Gregory Craig.
Richard Holbrooke and Rahm Emanuel convey different approaches to national security and the conduct of power than a Tom Daschle and Chuck Hagel.
So the debate about “who” fills the positions of responsibility around the president does matter when debating the policy objectives of the incoming team.
But things are tense and still complicated in the process of selecting a national security team. There had been high-placed rumblings that we would hear soon who would occupy the top posts at the State, Defense, and Treasury Departments — as well as the National Security Council but the process has been complicated and intense for those in the game.
To give the Obama team credit, they are working hard to consider who would be the best in these roles and a lot of the assumptions analysts previously held about who would get what posts needs to be reconsidered. There may be some suprise choices.
— Steve Clemons


9 comments on “Debating Who Obama Picks is Relevant to What His Administration Will Do

  1. Kathleen Grasso Andersen says:

    I’ll let this article speak for itself…
    Conned Again
    By Paul Craig Roberts
    November 09, 2008 “Information Clearinghouse” — If the change President-elect Obama has promised includes a halt to America’s wars of aggression and an end to the rip-off of taxpayers by powerful financial interests, what explains Obama’s choice of foreign and economic policy advisors? Indeed, Obama’s selection of Rahm Israel Emanuel as White House chief of staff is a signal that change ended with Obama’s election. The only thing different about the new administration will be the faces.
    Rahm Israel Emanuel is a supporter of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Emanuel rose to prominence in the Democratic Party as a result of his fundraising connections to AIPAC. A strong supporter of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, he comes from a terrorist family. His father was a member of Irgun, a Jewish terrorist organization that used violence to drive the British and Palestinians out of Palestine in order to create the Jewish state. During the 1991 Gulf War, Rahm Israel Emanuel volunteered to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. He was a member of the Freddie Mac board of directors and received $231,655 in directors fees in 2001. According to Wikipedia, “during the time Emanuel spent on the board, Freddie Mac was plagued with scandals involving campaign contributions and accounting irregularities.”
    In “Hail to the Chief of Staff,” Alexander Cockburn describes Emanuel as “a super-Likudnik hawk,” who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006 “made great efforts to knock out antiwar Democratic candidates.”
    My despondent friends in the Israeli peace movement ask, “What is this man doing in Obama’s administration?”
    Obama’s election was necessary as the only means Americans had to hold the Republicans accountable for their crimes against the Constitution and human rights, for their violations of US and international laws, for their lies and deceptions, and for their financial chicanery. As an editorial in Pravda put it, “Only Satan would have been worse than the Bush regime. Therefore it could be argued that the new administration in the USA could never be worse than the one which divorced the hearts and minds of Americans from their brothers in the international community, which appalled the rest of the world with shock and awe tactics that included concentration camps, torture, mass murder and utter disrespect for international law.”
    But Obama’s advisers are drawn from the same gang of Washington thugs and Wall Street banksters as Bush’s. Richard Holbrooke, son of Russian and German Jews, was an assistant secretary of state and ambassador in the Clinton administration. He implemented the policy to enlarge NATO and to place the military alliance on Russia’s border in contravention of Reagan’s promise to Gorbachev. Holbrooke is also associated with the Clinton administration’s illegal bombing of Serbia, a war crime that killed civilians and Chinese diplomats. If not a neocon himself, Holbrooke is closely allied with them.
    According to Wikipedia, Madeline Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelova in Prague to Jewish parents who had converted to Catholicism in order to escape persecution. She is the Clinton era secretary of state who told Leslie Stahl (60 Minutes) that the US policy of Iraq sanctions, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, had goals important enough to justify the children’s deaths. Albright’s infamous words: “we think the price is worth it.” Wikipedia reports that this immoralist served on the board of directors of the New York Stock Exchange at the time of Dick Grasso’s $187.5 million compensation scandal.
    Dennis Ross has long associations with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace negotiations.” A member of his Clinton era team, Aaron David Miller, wrote that during 1999-2000 the US negotiating team led by Ross acted as Israel’s lawyer: “we had to run everything by Israel first.” This “stripped our policy of the independence and flexibility required for serious peacemaking. If we couldn’t put proposals on the table without checking with the Israelis first, and refused to push back when they said no, how effective could our mediation be?” According to Wikipedia, Ross is “chairman of a new Jerusalem-based think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, funded and founded by the Jewish Agency.”
    Clearly, this is not a group of advisors that is going to halt America’s wars against Israel’s enemies or force the Israeli government to accept the necessary conditions for a real peace in the Middle East.
    Ralph Nader predicted as much. In his “Open Letter to Barack Obama (November 3, 2008), Nader pointed out to Obama that his “transformation from an articulate defender of Palestinian rights . . . to a dittoman for the hard-line AIPAC lobby” puts Obama at odds with “a majority of Jewish-Americans” and “64% of Israelis.” Nader quotes the Israeli writer and peace advocate Uri Avnery’s description of Obama’s appearance before AIPAC as an appearance that “broke all records for obsequiousness and fawning.” Nader damns Obama for his “utter lack of political courage [for] surrendering to demands of the hard-liners to prohibit former president Jimmy Carter from speaking at the Democratic National Convention.” Carter, who achieved the only meaningful peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs, has been demonized by the powerful AIPAC lobby for criticizing Israel’s policy of apartheid toward the Palestinians whose territory Israel forcibly occupies.
    Obama’s economic team is just as bad. Its star is Robert Rubin, the bankster who was secretary of the treasury in the Clinton administration. Rubin has responsibility for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and, thereby, responsibility for the current financial crisis. In his letter to Obama, Nader points out that Obama received unprecedented campaign contributions from corporate and Wall Street interests. “Never before has a Democratic nominee for President achieved this supremacy over his Republican counterpart.”
    Obama’s victory speech was magnificent. The TV cameras scanning faces in the audience showed the hope and belief that propelled Obama into the presidency. But Obama cannot bring change to Washington. There is no one in the Washington crowd that he can appoint who is capable of bringing change. If Obama were to reach outside the usual crowd, anyone suspected of being a bringer of change could not get confirmed by the Senate. Powerful interest groups–AIPAC, the military-security complex, Wall Street–use their political influence to block unacceptable appointments.
    As Alexander Cockburn put it in his column, “Obama, the first-rate Republican,” “never has the dead hand of the past had a ‘reform’ candidate so firmly by the windpipe.” Obama confirmed Cockburn’s verdict in his first press conference as president-elect. Disregarding the unanimous US National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran stopped working on nuclear weapons five years ago, and ignoring the continued certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency that none of the nuclear material for Iran’s civilian nuclear reactor has been diverted to weapons use, Obama sallied forth with the Israel Lobby’s propaganda and accused Iran of “development of a nuclear weapon” and vowing “to prevent that from happening.”
    The change that is coming to America has nothing to do with Obama. Change is coming from the financial crisis brought on by Wall Street greed and irresponsibility, from the eroding role of the US dollar as reserve currency, from countless mortgage foreclosures, from the offshoring of millions of America’s best jobs, from a deepening recession, from pillars of American manufacturing–Ford and GM–begging the government for taxpayers’ money to stay alive, and from budget and trade deficits that are too large to be closed by normal means.
    Traditionally, the government relies on monetary and fiscal policy to lift the economy out of recession. But easy money is not working. Interest rates are already low and monetary growth is already high, yet unemployment is rising. The budget deficit is already huge–a world record–and the red ink is not stimulating the economy. Can even lower interest rates and even higher budget deficits help an economy that has moved offshore, leaving behind jobless consumers overburdened with debt?
    How much more can the government borrow? America’s foreign creditors are asking this question. An official organ of the Chinese ruling party recently called for Asian and European countries to “banish the US dollar from their direct trade relations, relying only on their own currencies.”
    “Why,” asks another Chinese publication, “should China help the US to issue debt without end in the belief that the national credit of the US can expand without limit?”
    The world has tired of American hegemony and had its fill of American arrogance. America’s reputation is in tatters: the financial debacle, endless red ink, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, rendition, torture, illegal wars based on lies and deception, disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries, war crimes, disregard for international law and the Geneva Conventions, the assault on habeas corpus and the separation of powers, a domestic police state, constant interference in the internal affairs of other countries, boundless hypocrisy.
    The change that is coming is the end of American empire. The hegemon has run out of money and influence. Obama as “America’s First Black President” will lift hopes and, thus, allow the act to be carried on a little longer. But the New American Century is already over.


  2. Susan Chan says:

    In the light of , and if it is to be Franklin Delano Obama, maybe Laura Harrison’s question should be, not ‘who is the new Kissinger?’, but ‘who is the new Cordell Hull’?
    (As you know, Hull was FDR’s Secretary of State for almost all his presidency – 1933 through 1944.)
    Where do the key candidates for Sec of State today stand on international economic cooperation, including Hull’s passionate commitment to free trade and against protectionism?
    And what about the next tier?
    Where do Susan Rice or Anne-Marie Slaughter, say, stand on these international economic issues?
    This is one of the great issues of the day.


  3. Steve M says:

    I am thrilled to see Obama picking so many centrists and so many Clinton appointees. This confirms my faith in him ten times over. I’m not saying they all have to be such centrists, but this is great for those of us who knew that he was a centrist, very sensible and practical leader. thanks.


  4. Laura Harrison says:

    Does any of the foreign policy experts you are discussing understand how central economic issues are today to foreign policy?
    I suppose that Joe Nye and Bob Keohane have been saying this for years. Some of us have been saying to the economics experts in the context of the present global financial crisis that this is one of the great insights from J M Keynes, who is enjoying a bit of a revival at the moment. (Donald Markwell’s book on ‘John Maynard Keynes and International Relations’ is relevant here.)
    Barack Obama apparently said in his press conference on Friday that “We must also remember that the financial crisis is increasingly global and requires a global response”. I hope the foreign policy wonks realize that they have to help Obama give leadership in this!
    I said in the blog on who should be Secretary of the Treasury that the key point of all this today is that the next US administration give real leadership in “international economic cooperation”. The person who’s been using that phrase more than anyone else I’ve been hearing is Gordon Brown.
    (That blog, by the way, got a bit animated at Steve Clemons’ idea that Timothy Geithner, who turns out to have quite an international background which I didn’t know about, was the closest thing we have to a modern version of John Maynard Keynes – quite a claim! I pointed out that this would have to mean that he was a great advocate of US leadership ininternational economic cooperation.)
    I wonder who Steve Clemons thinks is the new Kissinger? But, then again, we need someone much more interested international economic affairs than Kissinger ever was. This, after all,is the age of globalization and economic interdependence.


  5. David says:

    Nothing is more indicative than who. Ideas might be the intended guiding principles, but who ultimately determines the whats. Steve is correct to place the who’s as high in importance as he does.


  6. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    Having been there and done that in DC, I strongly agree that “personnel is policy” inside The Beltway. Debating the “who” is indeed debating the “what.”
    For example, does anyone not think every Embassy in town (every capital in the world) is assiduously gathering as much info as possible on Team Obama so as to make some assessments on future US foreign policy?
    I hope we get the best Team Obama possible to advance our national interests (not to mention peace and justice) in the emerging multipolar world. I fully concur that the team should include some Republicans so as to present a bi-partisan (non-partisan) face to our foreign policy in this difficult, challenging, and dangerous time.
    Keep those great insights, and all the nuances possible, coming!


  7. Steve Clemons says:

    misnet — i don’t completely disagree with your post, but this blog was the first to clearly indicate that joe biden would be the vp choice — after an effort to raise a “surge of concern” over evan bayh. it was also one of of the first — if not the first – to discount the info that tom daschle would be chief of staff and to say that it would be offered to rahm emanuel. i got heaps of scorn saying obama would never offer the option to rahm.
    clearly, you aren’t a regular reader. I am talking to people on the inside, and while the informaion I receive is nuanced, it is quality.
    thanks though for stating what you think is the obvious but which is not correct regarding my information sources.


  8. mlsnet says:

    It is amusing that a “senior” Obama person allegedly shared with you his/her distaste for the rampant speculation on prospective appointments. You and your blog are one of the leading purveyors of this game ….
    Not that I am complaining — we all love to play this game. But the reality is that almost everyone, including yourself, are not in the real loop. The only people who truly know who Obama is considering for State, Defense, and the other big positions are Barack Obama and maybe Joe Biden and a couple of the people who have been there all along, e.g. Susan Rice, Tony Lake, Richard Danzing


  9. WigWag says:

    Charles Kupchan has a realist tilt? Maybe, but he sure got it wrong on Kosovo. Kupchan was a leading advocate for US and EU recognition of Kosovo. Kupchan assured us that the Serbs would get over it quickly once they were enticed by the prospect of EU membership. He also assured us that there would be barely a whimper from the Russians.
    Of course, Kupchan was wrong on both counts. While the Serbs did re-elect a government that was somewhat moderate on the Kosovo issue, the only thing that prevents Northern Kosovo from being integrated into Serbia is the presence of thousands of NATO troops. The reality is that Northern Kosovo is already de facto part of Serbia.
    And Kupchan sure got it wrong on the Russian reaction. In a March, 12, 2008 article in Foreign Affairs, Kupchan assured us that the Russians would quickly get used to the idea of an independent Kosovo. A mere five months later, on August 8, 2008 Russian tanks poured into South Ossetia. US and EU recognition of an independent Kosovo was a proximate cause of the Russian invasion.
    Anyone who wants to see how wrong a foreign policy expert can get it should read these two articles (both are available free on the Council for Foreign Relations website):
    Charles A. Kupchan, “Serbia’s Final Frontier”, Foreign Affairs, March 12, 2008
    Charles A. Kupchan, “Independence for Kosovo”, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2005
    During the Presidential campaign, Kupchan indicated that he had been informally advising Senator Obama. (I think I may have seen him say this in response to a question posed by Steve Clemons on a panel discussion Steve ran and broadcast at the Washington Note)
    Let’s hope that that President-Elect Obama doesn’t take Kupchan’s advice on Serbia, Kosovo or relations with Russia. After all, the policy on Kosovo adopted by George W. Bush was right out of the Charles Kupchan playbook.
    On a side note, I’m hoping that there is room somewhere in an Obama Administration for Peter Galbraith and Joe Cirincionne


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