Obama’s Foreign Policy Team: Are They Advising Him or Is He Colonizing Them?


barack obama twn 300.JPG
Elisabeth Bumiller’s New York Times piece yesterday describing the national security and foreign policy advisory network in the Obama campaign has sent off strange shock waves in the blogosphere and in Washington.
This article, I think, is a misfire. Some data show that there are somewhere between 70 and 100 million blogs in the world. Perhaps 20 million of them are active, but only a miniscule portion of them are actually read in any significant numbers.
Similarly, Obama could have 10,000 advisers, 1000 advisers, or his 300, but he’d still be mostly advised by a core network of talent managed by Denis McDonough, Susan Rice, Gregory Craig, Mark Lippert, Anthony Lake, Richard Danzig and a few others.
What she didn’t get at is that there is little policy consistency among these 300 advisers — that there lies lurking among them some potential policy civil wars in an Obama administration. McDonough, of nearly all the advisers listed, and perhaps Mark Lippert — who served on Obama’s Senate staff — are considered to be the most pragmatic, solutions-oriented type foreign policy thinkers in Obamaland. Many of the rest bring to their policy work a strong ideological bent — and these bents scattered across “the 300” don’t necessarily mesh well. That is the only thing that makes the seemingly high number of sign-on advisers interesting.
During George W. Bush’s first campaign, Robert Zoellick — then head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies — played a key role in tying together the Washington policy intellectual scene. I was amazed to see how quickly Zoellick turned the Republican think tank crowd into an engine for Bush. John McCain didn’t make any substantial efforts on this front in 2000 — and from my vantage point, Al Gore didn’t give it much attention either. But Bush’s key spear-carriers at the time did.
Thus, what Bumiller might have said is that Obama himself is colonizing the public intellectuals scene — rather than focusing on the fact that all of these people are supposedly advising him.
The closer truth is that Obama is colonizing them. And that’s politically smart.
— Steve Clemons


19 comments on “Obama’s Foreign Policy Team: Are They Advising Him or Is He Colonizing Them?

  1. robyn bostick says:

    Hey ,I like your add !


  2. Kathleen says:

    Speaking of “strategies”, on the topic of VEEP choices, I couldn;t believe my ears yesterday when I heard on the TeeVee news that Newt the Brewt was advising McPain not to chose any more “old white guys”. …wonder where he got that idea???…One thing I do have to hand the old Brewt, he always could read the writing on the wall… Some ideas are synchronistic… when their time has come., like fine wine.
    POA maybe 1 year during the campaign and one year after, transitioning????


  3. Tahoe Editor says:

    It’s the 57-state strategy.


  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Ok, heres a quiz for you. Or maybe not, maybe theres a simple answer, and its not a quiz at all.
    Yesterday, on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360”, Obama was interviewed, and he stated….
    “The objective of this trip was to have substantive discussions with people like President Karzai or Prime Minister Maliki or President Sarkozy or others who I expect to be dealing with over the next eight to 10 years”
    So, heres the question….
    10 years????? Whats up with that?


  5. Sam Penrose says:

    Just curious, Steve, but do you know if anyone has walked up to Zoellick and asked “Hey Robert — when you turned the Republican think tank crowd into an engine for Bush, WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?”


  6. Kathleen says:

    David… Sometimes, just doing what you think is the right thing to do, works out. I’m sure Obama felt he needed to go on this trip for his own informed decision making and the three networks followed… that could have backfired, but when your motives are sincere, Lady Luck can smile on you….it also depends on the determination and strength of conviction of the candidate.. if your’e running for ego reasons, and pure ambition, your campaign will lack genuiness… and even if the public can’t put their finger on what it is, they’ll feel it….the candidate will be too micromanaged, everything will be too calculated….often there is no rational way to weigh all the pros and cons so you have only your conviction to guide you… without it, you’ll lose….even with it you can lose when others cheat….still candidates of true moral fiber create more change for the better, even in losing an election, than some who win, but benefit no one.
    With Al Gore, whom I loved and wanted to win, he had an inner conflict from the outset which worked against him… he was part of the Clinton adminstration and there was good cause to be proud of their accomplishments, but Gore essentially bought the GOP Talking Points on Clinton’s impeachment and chose Joe Lieberman as his running mate. .. the first Dem to criticize Clinton….mistake number one because it created division and inner conflict…The I Ching says any action taken with inner conflict has within it the seeds of its own defeat…. the damned butterfly ballot was bad luck, but Gore’s lawyer, David Bois made what I think was a fatal error when he asked for a partial recount.. Gore was entitled to a full recount by law, but asking for only a partial recount opened it up to legal challenge… mistake number two… and then their final remedy was not used… when the Congressional Black Caucus objected to the certification of the Florida presidential electors, not one Dem Senator, a requirement, signed on… that had to be a campaign decision….if he felt the impeachment was wrong, he should have stood for that…if you want there to be no question about the results, recount all the votes…. if you felt black voters in Florida were prevented from voting, he should have supported them in their objection to certifying the Fla. electors….
    With John Kerry, I’m not sure he really wanted to run for President. I have my theory about Teddy’s influence in the party and his efforts to remain the ‘”leader'” of the Dem party, at all costs, even backing losers from Massachusettes….people who had no particular national status, like Dukakis, Tsgongas, Kerry, but with urging from Teddy and a promise of his support, why not? But again, campaigns like that just don’;t have a ‘”seat of the pants” thing going. It’s’ all calculated and flat. I was a Dean supporter. When Teddy’s team took over Kerry’s campaign just before the Iowa Caucus, the fix was in, so to speak. I did work for Kerry, indirectly, through Steve’s friend and mine, Anne Wexler, a consultant for the DNC…which is how Kerry came to use a line I wrote….W stands for wrong, wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, wrong direction. I was complaining to her about Kerry’s speeches being too windy and vague and having no quick lines one could take away with you…unfortunatley, he lost the lead when he reversed his position while standing in front of the Grand Canyon and said if he had known then, blah, blah, he would have voted the same way… lack of conviction on the issue…inner conflict…glug, glug, I continued to send my research to Anne who provided it to the debate team, but there was no repairing that loss of lead.
    Hillary did a lot better when she canned Mark Penn who micromanaged her on every issue. I think she ran from pure ambition to be the first woman President and tanked, but when she lost the lead and had to fight instead of presume, she came to realize how much her candidacy meant to women, not just on an intellectual level, but emotionally, and I think her campaign improved as her reasons for staying in the race became less self-centered. I say this because I am not a Hillary supporter, yet it saddens me that a woman fought so hard, came so close and lost, evren though she got more votes… I think she picked up on this in voters and it improved her ability to be herself…less calculated, belatedly.
    Anne Wexler, Joe Duffey and I have been on the same wave-length ever since 1967 when Gene McCarthy announced his candidacy and we all volunteered. They chose to work within the political system, I chose to remain outside, but involved. We’ve always trusted each other’s judgement, even though we disagree strenuously, frequently. McCarthy’s only instructions to his supporters was to do what we thought was right. It was very empowering. and for the first time I realized that WE are the gov’t..it’s not us and them…Howard Dean’s campaign was like this, but the party Pols don;’t want any populists winning…unuh…no, when party pols are running the show it’s more about who gets credit for something than the actual merits, all of which is why we keep having these these razor thin margins… and gridlock…pols to the left of us, pols to the right of us, pols as far as the eye can see.
    Obama being a relative newcomer has advisors who have not yet ossified….Nothing like winning to make some candidates go all cautious on you…. and you get petrified politics. instead of bold new visions, you get thinking inside the Madison Avenue market tested box…. and we have to pay for the hustling.
    My advice to Demz when it comes to Repug Talking Points is to do what the blonde lady on Mad T.V. does..close your eyes, cover your ears and say lalalalalalalalalala but whatever you do not listen. consider it a Siren’s song….


  7. David says:

    I have long been curious what really makes a campaign tick, why some work and some don’t (factors other than the blind-assed luck phenomenon, like that damned butterfly ballot in Florida that denied Gore 3,000 votes and the presidency – to America’s unimaginable bad luck). I think you must be right, especially the “seat of the pants” component.
    Obama’s coup with the three networks for his foreign policy globetrotting, for instance. Who would have been responsible for that, and at what point would they have realized this was a really smart thing to do? Would it have been organic to the campaign, or something someone realized brainstorming? And how much of each is there in a successful campaign (I still consider Gore’s campaign ultimately successful, because he did win, but not by a foible-proof margin). Didn’t you say you worked in Kerry’s campaign? I also think Kerry likely actually won. Ohio ’04 was all of the shennanigans of Florida ’00, but even more so, and with more prolonged, more effective strategies. Florida was ultimately the fickle finger of fate, whereas Ohio was just the finger


  8. Kathleen says:

    No matter how many so-called ‘”advisors”‘ a candidate has acquired, every candidacy begins and ends with a tiny corps of people who hatched the campaign and whose judgment the candidate trusts… it’s like being in a Vonnegut karass… everyone is on the same wave-length 24/7, till the reuslts are in. Other people are “on board”, but it’s always the original few who make the value judgments on what course to take and which tack to take to get you there. For all the research and thought put into it, it ends up being a “seat of the pants” thing. There has to be that bond between the candidate and those who gave the candidacy life.


  9. Tahoe Editor says:

    Obama’s albatross


  10. PissedOffAmerican says:

    I wonder how Obama’s “team” is reacting to Petreaus’ statement that Al Qaeda is diverting assets, (manpower) to the “Afghanistan frontier”, and that Iraq is no longer their main front.
    You know, you read this crap, and the only conclusion that can be reached is that these lyin’ sacks of shit like Bush, Cheney, and Petreaus think we are all idiots.
    Gee, it must just be a coinkydink that Petreaus’ latest bit of message force multiplication dovetails so sweetly with Obama’s latest ruminations, eh?
    Endless war seems to be a construct of BOTH sides of the aisle, eh? Maybe, just maybe, that aisle is just an illusion to make us all think there is a separating gap between the seats?
    You think?
    Bear in mind, America, no matter which box you put your checkmark in, you just voted for war. There ain’t no White Knights. The media erased them, months ago.


  11. MarkL says:

    So Obama is using advisers much like Bush did in 2000, and this is a good sign?!
    I have actually lost interest in this election, because I see no reason to be excited about Obama. More specifically, I don’t trust a single word he says. McCain is pretty pathetic too, needless to say.


  12. arthurdecco says:

    Some further background on Benny Morris, Rich:
    “The Historian and the Twisted Politics of Expulsion
    Dr. Benny and Mr. Morris
    Is it possible for someone who matter-of-factly supports crimes against humanity to be a good historian? A startling and provocative question, no doubt, but one that inevitably arises upon consideration of the remarkable career of Israeli scholar Benny Morris. A professor in the Middle East Studies department at Ben-Gurion University, Morris is well-known as one of the most important of the “New Historians,” a group that upended traditional Zionist historiography of the Israeli-Arab conflict. In the first edition of his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), Morris conclusively demonstrated, through the mining of newly released Israeli government archives, that the refugees from the 1948 war had, overwhelmingly, fled or been expelled by Israeli forces rather than left as a result of encouragement by Arab leaders, as a previous generation of Israeli propagandists had claimed.”
    You can continue the article at:
    It’s a fascinating read.


  13. Mr.Murder says:

    That’s a lot of extra red and yellow trkkie ranks top let die off or beam away should they make monster statements….
    Basically he’s done a Quid Pro for roughly a third of his diplomatic ranks. Welcome your new State Department, all 300 of them.
    “300” ist just a movie about failed battles….


  14. Zathras says:

    I would have thought the potential for civil wars within an Obama administration was a little more important than the marginal political utility of enlisting this horde of advisers to endorse Sen. Obama’s candidacy and contribute talking points to his campaign.
    Now, this potential may be a question of appearances only. It isn’t preordained by any means; if Presidential history tells us anything, it is that a strong President who knows his own mind can dominate the making of foreign and national security policy. The problem is that we have no idea if Obama has it in him to be this kind of President. I’ve seen enough to be convinced that Obama has mastered the mechanics of Presidential campaign politics, as the incumbent President and his immediate predecessor did as well in their time. We still don’t have much idea of what kind of President he would be.


  15. rich says:

    Check the Benny Morris Op-Ed in the NYTs:
    Looks like Dr. Strangelove rides again:
    Using Bombs to Stave Off War
    I’d like to get some context on Morris, and some comment on his assertions. Pushback is critical.
    “Every intelligence agency in the world believes the Iranian program is geared toward making weapons, not to the peaceful applications of nuclear power.”
    Make no mistake, this will have to be far more massive than Israel’s pinpoint attack on Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak. And it will backfire.
    Invoking Armageddon, though, isn’t just irresponsible. Israel would never face such an eventuality at all, if its policies and practices at home were just and reasonable and defensible. Who could gripe? But that’s not all: while establishing a Jewish homeland/nation was absolutely critical and I fully support it—it must face up to and entirely redress the Original Sin of a founding that came at the total expense of the Palestinian nation/people.
    Bombing won’t stall Iran’s nuclear programs, nor the general momentum towards nuclear capability by other nations. Bombing will clearly not correct the root cause of hostility to Israel. And Morris’ public dishonesty about the current context, future threat, and viable solutions doesn’t just compromise the security of us all. It is the face of the root cause of Israel’s compromised future; and Morris is the face of those who directly threaten Israel’s survival.
    Americans of every station cannot allow Morris to go unanswered and unchallenged.


  16. rich says:

    This is an excellent insight.
    Charles J. Brown’s point about effective campaign organizations aside, if Obama is colonizing political blocs and advisors—rather than vice versa—then our assessment of a range of decisions he’s made will have to change.
    The explanatory power is not trivial. As JohnH points out, there’s a fair amount of distrust in play here. For obvious reasons: ask Russ Feingold. I would be very, very unhappy with Senator Obama should Madeleine Albright end up with a major role—to the point of writing off Obama’s term. Would she disagree even slightly with Baker & Christopher’s profoundly corrosive and entirely irresponsible Op-Ed on the War Powers Act?
    I’m not too worried. Even if (or esp since) I’m irked with Obama for my own reasons.
    Obama does appear to be going out and getting people, instead of begging for their support and ending up indebted to different blocs, machines, players, interest groups. By taking that initiative, he changes the whole dynamic in play.
    And the distinction is obvious. Gauging whether a campaign actively colonizes other groups, sectors, communities, instead of being owned by donors and operatives, is very useful in assessing any candidate.
    Even Bush, with an agenda entirely aligned with his dead-enders, and closed to all input, serves as a useful landmark. But consider Sen. Clinton’s campaign. Many of her major donors felt entitled to threaten/extort the Democratic Party leadership. Mrs. Clinton was not even able to fire Mark Penn. What does
    Steve once said that Obama really had to get the support of the Clinton bloc or political machine. But maybe the inverse is the case.
    Let’s see if Barack Obama colonizes Establishment Washington D.C. when the time comes, or starts giving away the store to win marginal cooperation. My guess is the job is further along than most are aware.


  17. JohnH says:

    What on earth does it mean to colonize a foreign policy team? Turn them into something looking like Iraq?
    Alarm bells should be ringing everywhere when Obama brings L[ik]uddites like Ross and Albright onto the team. We can only hope that they are no more than figureheads. If not let’s hope that they are called on only to help spin the message, not create the policy. As Dick Cheney has proved, long experience does not imply good judgement.


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