Clark: Foreign Policy Should Top Obama's Transition Talks

President-elect Barack Obama has started putting together the team of people who will work with him in his new administration, yesterday naming Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. U.S. Army General Wesley Clark (ret.) why foreign policy should be a top priority during Obama's transitional talks.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we hear your thoughts about Election Day and what you have to say about the election of Barack Obama and what's in store with his administration. But first, we want to begin our conversation about the transition that is to come and the challenges to be faced by an upcoming Obama administration. We want to begin with national security issues, an unpopular war in Iraq and increasingly aggressive resistance in Afghanistan, a global economic crisis - these are just some of the issues on the new president-elect's plate.

To talk more about this we decided to check in with retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. He's a graduate of West Point, the former Supreme Allied Commander of Europe and a one-time Democratic candidate for president himself. Thank you so much for speaking with us, General Clark.

General WESLEY CLARK (Retired, U.S. Army): Thank you, Michel. It's nice to be with you. MARTIN: Before we jump into our conversation, may I ask where you were and what you were doing when you found out that Senator Obama would be our next president and what your thoughts were?

Gen. CLARK: I was actually in Chicago, in one of the tents at Grant Park. And one of the most amazing people I was with was a man named Ernest Green. Ernest Green was one of the original Little Rock Nine who broke segregation in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. And can you imagine what he felt? I was just so proud to be with him.

MARTIN: What do you think went through your mind as a person who frankly sought that office at one time four years ago? I mean, some people are saying, well, who would really want that job right now?

Gen. CLARK: Well, it's a very tough job. I've been doing some campaigning for President-elect Obama and I was with him and Michelle out in Colorado on Saturday. And when I looked at them up on the platform in Pueblo in front of 40,000 people, it was just an incredible wave of feeling went through me. It was historic. It was transformational - their love for each other, his dedication to the country, what it means to have someone with his background, with his experiences representing America. He's a very thoughtful man who's a very analytical thinker. I think he's going to really do extremely well for our country. I was just so proud at that time and of course those feelings carry over.

MARTIN: On to the tough stuff at hand. Vice President-elect Joe Biden in the last month of the campaign suggested that President-elect Obama will be tested in the early days of his presidency, you know. Of course, this has been reported as a gaffe, but there are those who argue that this is just a simple reality. Do you think that that's true?

Gen. CLARK: Oh, I think it's true. I think it happens to every president. I think early on they discover national security problems. They may not be what they were elected to deal with because most presidents come in and they have great dreams about taking America forward and it's mostly about the domestic issues, and yet national security intrudes.

MARTIN: One of the top three challenges likely to be that you think Senator Obama, rather, President-elect Obama will be facing.

Gen. CLARK: I think the greatest threat to United States still remains international terrorists, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Ladens on the loose. But I think that he's going to move very quickly to deal with the situation in the Middle East. He's going to work quickly on Iraq to put together a plan that will bring our troops successfully out of Iraq in a possible way. I think he's going to work the Afghanistan issue which is connected to Pakistan and India and Kashmir, as well as to terrorism. And I think he's going to put new life into work to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

So I think those issues are important. I think there's another set of issues dealing with Russia that are very important. And I think whether anyone would have anticipated it six months ago or not, I think the international financial system is going to bear heavy scrutiny with many proposals for changes and all of that will impact the international institutions we've been familiar with since World War II, really.

MARTIN: I believe you. Economics was one of your subjects when you were at West Point as a former economics major. Do you feel that the economic crisis intersects with the national security challenge?

Gen. CLARK: Without a doubt. Without a doubt, because President Eisenhower said America's greatest strength isn't its armed forces, it's its economy. We've got to restore demand in this economy, build consumer confidence, see the housing market bottom out, and make sure that our financial system provides the liquidity that our businesses need to grow.

MARTIN: Given though that President-elect Obama has a - how can we put this? A relatively thin resume when it comes to foreign affairs, or despite the fact he did serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate and has clearly thought a lot about these issues, do you think that he needs to make some gesture to demonstrate his competence, some gesture to demonstrate his resolve in the opening days of his administration? And if so, what would that be?

Gen. CLARK: You know, I can't imagine that as an issue. But, I don't know. I mean, I leave that to the president-elect and the people closest around him. I wouldn't be recommending that. I'd be recommending straight ahead, work the issues.

MARTIN: What about the whole question of continuity? It's interesting to some folks that for a person who ran on the platform of change, many of the people in his presidential transition are names that everyone knows, and of course there's a tension between the kind of people who tend to have the experience that you need to do these jobs or a lot of the people you've seen before, on the other hand, he does have a mandate for change in the area of national security. What's your recommendation? Do you think that - would you advise him, for example, to seek continuity? Would he - do you think that he should try to keep Defense Secretary Bob Gates on the job or do you think that that's simply not necessary?

Gen. CLARK: Well, I think he'll have to look at all of his team in terms of what specific expertise they have in terms of their effectiveness. He's going to have to pick people who can get the job done. I think he's going to set a very high standard for performance. I wouldn't be worried about the change versus continuity. I think he's strong enough and deep enough to be able to handle any of the changes himself. He's got to make sure that the government functions and I think he will be very much aware of that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark about the national security challenges facing the incoming Obama administration. Clearly, one of the key differences in this election between then Senator Obama and Senator John McCain was over how to conclude the war in Iraq. Do you think that Senator Obama can end the war in Iraq responsibly and on a time table?

Gen. CLARK: I think he can end it responsibly, but I think that from the time the primary started and it seemed that the Republican and Democratic sides were so far apart, I think that situations changed on the ground. The Iraqis clearly, through their political system, have expressed the intent that we leave. They've set a time table for getting us off. So I think that the position that Senator McCain took early on has been obviated by the events. So I have every confidence that President-elect Obama's going to be able to handle this problem. It's a matter of working the politics in Iraq and working the diplomacy in the region, and working the security function in Iraq.

MARTIN: I wanted to switch gears and talk about the so question of America's standing in the world and what affect President Obama can have on that. You know, we saw that there were celebrations all over the world when the U.S. election results were announced. But, I wonder - particularly as a person like you who spent so much time overseas, are we setting unrealistically high expectations here? Can he really do that in a timely fashion? Can he really change the way people feel about this country given, as you just pointed out, that it's unlikely he really has that much maneuvering room when it comes to some of these foreign policy challenges.

Gen. CLARK: I think his election has already made a change. I think his inauguration is going to make a further change and I think through his character, through his experiences as well as the policies, he will change the way America is perceived in the world. Look, people out there don't have problems with Americans. I travel all over the world and they always tell me they love America. They love what we stand for. What they didn't like was the way that the previous administration enunciated its policies. Its disregard for world opinion, its propensity to use force too early, its insensitivity to local concerns and issues, and I think by the very nature, the way he conducts business, Barack Obama will change all of that.

MARTIN: We talked at the beginning of our - we're down just for a last couple of minutes - about the top priorities that an Obama administration will have to confront. Are there areas of national security or international affairs that you think have been neglected over the course of the last eight years because of the priorities set by the war on terror that you would like to see him confront, assuming that he gets to handle these other issues?

Gen. CLARK: I hope that our country will rebuild its relationship with Europe, because with Europe we can have a very, very strong and stable and enduring partnership. And together, we can get so much done to deal with issues around the world. And one of the things that frustrated me about the previous administration was how badly they bungled relations with Europe again and again and again. So I think he'll work that. But in terms of pressing matters, I think they're pretty much out there. It's two wars, it's first and foremost the financial situation. It's the continuing threat of terrorism and the need to protect the United States and our forces and partners and allies abroad and go after the source of the problem. And beyond that, it's restoring America's reputation in rebuilding our alliances and working with our friends to deal with a lot of issues that simply can't be dealt with by one nation acting in isolation. It's a tall order, but I think there still haven't been a time in American history where presidents come in to office, where it was so clearly obvious that foreign policy and national security was going to have to be an early priority.

MARTIN: Speaking of working with your friends, any interest in serving in an Obama administration?

Gen. CLARK: I mean, I don't think anybody can say they don't have an interest in trying to help the country. In anything the president asks you to do, you have to give it very, very serious consideration. I'm in the private sector. I'm in investment banking. I'm in the energy and alternative energy businesses. I've got lots of stuff on my plate. But like everyone, we all love this country and everybody wants to help. So I think he'll have the choice of the very best people in America to fill some critical jobs and I know he'll make the right choices.

MARTIN: General Wesley Clark is retired from service in the United States Army. In 34 years of service he rose to the rank of four-star general. His last position was Supreme Allied Commander and the commander-in-chief of the U.S.-European Command. He's currently chairman and CEO of Wesley Clark and Associates and he was kind enough to join us from New York. General Clark, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Gen. CLARK: Thank you, Michel.

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