Obama Selects His National Security Team President-elect Barack Obama appointed former rival Sen. Hillary Clinton to his national security team on Monday. He also announced that Bush appointee Robert Gates will remain as Secretary of Defense. What do Obama's picks reveal about his global priorities?
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Obama Selects His National Security Team

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Obama Selects His National Security Team

Obama Selects His National Security Team

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Arrival, a Republican, the first African-American Attorney General and another foreign policy adviser named Rice are among those named today as part of President-elect Barack Obama's National Security team, and there were no surprises. Secretary of State Senator Hillary Clinton. Secretary of Defense Bush hold-over Robert Gates, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and National Security Adviser, Retired Marine General James Jones.

The president-elect said that he would give the military a new mission: To withdraw responsibly from Iraq and would focus all of America's power - military, diplomatic, and economic on Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qaeda. So what does this team tell us about his priorities, how will resources be divided, and callers, what's the one issue you think they ought to focus on first?

Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org or you can join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, it's World AIDS Day. On the opinion page this week, we'll talk with a key researcher about priorities and resources in the fight against the disease around the world and around the country. But first, the Obama team foreign policy and national security. We'll begin with David Sanger, Chief Washington correspondent with the New York Times, he's with us here in Studio 3A, David, nice to see you again.

Mr. DAVID SANGER (Chief Washington Correspondent, New York Times): Good to be back.

CONAN: And from what you saw and heard this morning, what do we know about the next administration's priorities?

Mr. SANGER: Well, we know a few things. We know first of all that President-elect Obama has chosen to surround himself with people who by and large are significantly more hawkish than the Obama who we heard during the campaign.

CONAN: That doesn't necessary mean they're significantly more hawkish than Obama himself, but he ran to get the nomination somewhat to the left?

Mr. SANGER: Today when he was describing the pathway out of Iraq, he left himself so many off-ramps that, you know, you thought you were in a highway intersection in the middle of a big city. He described how combat teams would be removed, but that leaves the bulk of the force. He did not set any great deadlines for - in fact the most imposing deadline as the one set in the agreement with the Iraqis.

CONAN: The status of forces describing the so-called SOFA that was agreed to by the Iraqi Parliament last week.

Mr. SANGER: Which would have all American forces out by the end of 2011.

CONAN: Not just combat forces, all American forces.

Mr. SANGER: Yes. But you know, these are all subject to some renegotiation later on. And I think if the Iraqis are feeling particularly vulnerable which has to do with Iran, has to do with internal insurgency. Everything is open for renegotiation.

CONAN: But look at the people who he put within a hundred yards of the Oval Office. He's got Jim Jones, who was a former Marine commandant, four-star general, ran NATO. I don't think any of us know what his politics are, but Marine generals tend not to be sort of on the left side of the Democratic Party in usual times. He's kept on Bob Gates, the man who has pursued a President Bush's Iraq policy, had said that at the time that he leaves office, meaning that he thought he was going to leave with President Bush, that he wanted to be down to 10 combat brigades in Iraq. He's going to be at 14.

He has said many times it's important that we leave as responsibly as we can, that we will be judged as much as for how we leave Iraq as we were for how we got in. And he has been a big voice within the administration of about going slow in dealing with Iran, not posing - creating a confrontation. He said to me a number of months ago, his biggest concern had been that we would accidentally get into war. And then he has put Susan Rice, a long-time aide at the United Nations. She worked in the Clinton administration, knows Africa and the developing world very well, has been a very big voice against genocide.

CONAN: Also re-elevated the UN ambassador to Cabinet rank, which was something a position that held in the Clinton administration, did not hold in the Bush administration, but again a symbol of the - interesting, he called the United Nations a...

Mr. SANGER: An imperfect but very important institution. If when Democrats are in this is a Cabinet rank job. And when Republicans are in its not, which tells you something about how the two parties regard the institution. It also creates a little bit of a tension built in with future Secretary of State Clinton because Susan Rice will both report to her and be equivalent to her in Cabinet rank.

CONAN: And report to her dear friend, the President of the United States as well. Let's bring another voice into the conversation retired Major General Mike Davidson was a former assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He was also an adviser to former presidential candidate, John Edwards. He joins us today from the studios of WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky, and nice to have you back in the program, Dave - Mike.

Retired Major General MIKE DAVIDSON (Former Assistant, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff): Thanks very much, Neal.

CONAN: And, General Jones, as David Sanger said he's probably the one the American people know the least about.

Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: Well, it - they'll learn a lot about him. And I think they'll like what they learn. And I would take a slightly different approach on hawkish versus liberal than David has on the - I think it speaks to President-elect Obama's confidence if you'll put a six-foot five-inch Marine on your staff, you're pretty well grounded in what you're trying to do. If you take your closest rival for the nomination and put her in the cabinet, I think that's speaks volume of Obama's confidence, and that's a good thing.

CONAN: General Jones, before those jobs that we talked about, is the NATO Commander in Europe or Sacure(ph) as it's called and then before he was the commandant of the Marine Corps, at the end of the first Gulf War he was running the American operation in Northern Iraq, in Kurdistan, and shone in that role.

Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: He did and it was with another young guy named Shela Kasvili(ph). And they both went on to great things. A couple of things that aren't too widely known about General Jones, one is he was looked at seriously for the chairmanship of the joint chiefs of staff. He could not get the answers he was asking for in terms of the chairman's authority, the chairman's role, was the secretary of defense going to micromanage the combatant commander? So, Jones took himself out of the running for that. So I think that shows both knowledge of the process, which is important, and also some pretty strong convictions about how the process ought to operate.

CONAN: Would that had been under the Secretary of Defense Gates or under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld?

Maj. Gen. DAVIDSON: That was pre-Gates. I think Gates is a great selection. If you're going to change horses in mid-stream, it helps to be getting on to a horse that's going generally in the same direction as the horse you're getting off of. And I think Gates fits the bill on that issue.

CONAN: David Sanger?

Mr. SANGER: You know, there is something that connects General Jones, Secretary Gates, Hillary Clinton, and if you listen to his campaign discussions, President-elect Obama. And that is that they have a joint commitment to reallocating the portfolio of our national security structure. They have all said at various times that we invested in the Bush years far too much in military force and far too little in reconstruction and diplomacy. General Jones wrote what maybe, published earlier this year, the most searing single critique of how we messed up Afghanistan and why we are still there seven years after the initial invasion.

And it basically was a critique of how we would take villages, leave without doing any real reconstruction and the Taliban would come right back in. Secretary Gates starting last year in the Landon lecture that he gave out in Kansas State University laid out why as secretary of defense he thought we needed to invest far more in the State Department. It's been a long time since you've heard a secretary of defense say that. And you heard President-elect Obama recite those themes again today. The big experiment of the Bush-Gates-Clinton-Jones era, I'm sorry, the Obama-Gates-Clinton-Jones era is going to be whether they can reverse course on what President Bush has done here, and actually, devote more resources here. President Bush talked about it but didn't do it.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. If you'd like to join us, what is the first issue the new Obama team ought to address? 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. Dennis is on the line. Dennis calling us from Massillon in Ohio.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you today?

CONAN: I am well thank you.

DENNIS: Good, good. Absolutely. Afghanistan should be our number one priority. We need to stabilize that country, and I sure would like to find Obama.

CONAN: Osama is I think who you meant.

DENNIS: Oh, what the heck his name is, that knucklehead. Being the case, once we do that, Pakistan will be stabilized as well, and because of the fact that they're nuclear power, we need make sure that they are stable country as well. We have a lot invested in that area. I'd like to see that we actually get some return from this and these people get to live a better life.

CONAN: Mike Davidson, there was little doubt in what President-elect Obama said today that he thinks Afghanistan ought to be among if not, at the top of the priority list.

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: I think he believes that, and I think he is absolutely correct, but he also knows that that reordering that David is talking about will be more effective in Afghanistan than more tanks, more planes, more bombs, more cruise missiles. We need to take a more nuanced, subtle approach other than just killing everybody in sight. And I think this team is well structured to do that.

CONAN: David Sanger, let me follow up also on Dennis' point about Pakistan under Secretary of Defense Gates, the United States has been dropping an awful lot of bombs on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan in the Alzeeristan(ph) and the tribal areas in Pakistan itself. It's unclear to me whether a President Obama would continue that policy though he said, again, during the campaign, if given actionable intelligence and if Pakistan declined to go after important targets, he would.

Mr. SANGER: You know, Neal, I heard something in the press conference today that I had not heard him say before and it was in the very last line, the last question of the press conference. In the past, the Obama team had always said that President-elect Obama would go into Pakistan to get al-Qaeda, and they sort of stopped it right there. What President Bush and Secretary Gates have done starting in the summer with a series of secret orders that the president signed is go after a much wider group of targets, other militants who are seeking to destabilize the Pakistani government as well as Afghanistan. And for the first time today, I heard President-elect Obama say he also would go after a wider group of targets, and I thought that was interesting.

CONAN: And maybe he didn't - the Bush team has gone after targets in other countries too, including Syria, and it's unclear as to whether a President-elect Obama would continue that.

Mr. SANGER: Right. So the big question is, January 20th, he gets into office. He's been briefed up for these past two months. Does he pursue the Bush strategy here?

CONAN: David Sanger of the New York Times. He's the author of the forthcoming book "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and The Challenge to American Power," that's out in January. Also with us, Retired Major General Mike Davidson, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff for National Guard Matters. Stay with us, what priority do you think the Obama National Security team should pursue first? Stay with us. I am Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I am Neal Conan in Washington. Earlier today in Chicago, President-elect Barack Obama introduced the National Security team. His picks include former political rival Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Bush holdover, Robert Gates, as the Secretary of Defense. We're talking about what this new line-up could mean for a variety of national security concerns facing the United States right now. We want to hear from you what's your top national security concern? 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org.

You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org click on Talk of the Nation. Our guest today, David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times and retired General Mike Davidson, former assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. And General Mike, let me ask you, one of the things that President-elect Obama also talked about was continuing plans to enlarge the United States ground forces, more divisions for the Army, another division or so for the Marine Corps as well. This is going to cost an awful lot of money yet the Army and the Marine Corps, especially taking the brunt of the overstretch that we continue to talk about in terms of Iraq.

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: It's going to be tough, and I think it's worse than the President-elect Obama said and perhaps worse than he knows. The Army budget is driven by the tyranny of our all-in personnel costs. Seventy-five percent of the Army's budget goes to our total personnel costs. We are going to have to flat line the Pentagon budget. It's gone up to 25 to 85 percent over the last eight years depending on who is doing accounting. So as you increase the number of people, flat line the defense budget, there are fewer other resources available for discretionary spending. A good strategy will fix that problem, more money wouldn't have fixed it anyway.

CONAN: That means, a lot of expensive weapons programs, David Sanger, may run into funding problems.

Mr. SANGER: Expensive weapons programs do but also traditional weapons programs. There is a huge amount of the rolling stock of the U.S. Army that was sent over to Iraq and is really not in the kind of shape the people want to spend the money to pick it up and bring it back again. Much of it's being given or will be given to the Iraqi forces as we turn over more and more responsibility to them. And so, there is going to be another hidden bill out here which is just rebuilding the ordinary rolling stock that the Army needs.

You've seen President-elect Obama say that he wants to spend vastly more on this humanitarian side and civilian side of the program. He had said $25 billion in the first four years through 2012. And then as Mike as pointed out, you've got this big military bill coming, and it's not as if we are in a time when there is excess cash washing around. And so I think the first big issue they're going to face is, how do make all these numbers work?

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Ahmed(ph). Ahmed calling from Allentown in Pennsylvania.

AHMED (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I hope you can hear me because I am on the road.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.

AHMED: Excellent. My comment is for President-elect Obama. The number one priority that he has I believe is knowing the country again. I am from there. If he don't take care of ISI, and you don't put immense leverage on ISI to stop supporting the Taliban. Whatever we do in Afghanistan itself, will not make any difference.

CONAN: ISI, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency.

AHMED: That's correct. We have spent billions of dollars and bombs and trying to fight a war with remote control. The Russians did it for 10 years, they failed. NATO is saying right now that we cannot fight a war like that. The British went in and said that we will not use air force, and we will fight this war one village at a time. They have failed. It is not going to work unless ISI stops supporting, stops protecting the Taliban leadership and al-Qaeda leadership. So, if you want to go after the hotbed of terrorism, it's not in Afghanistan, it's in the northwest frontier province in Pakistan. That is where it all started. That's where it will also end. Afghanistan is simply a product of this war.

CONAN: Ahmed, I think the phone is now breaking up so I will hang up on you, but I will get David Sanger and Mike Davidson to respond to your concerns. ISI, a virtually independent part of the Pakistani government in the military leadership recently now said to being brought under control of the new civilian leadership in Pakistan, David Sanger, but nevertheless, this is a problem not just on the Afghan side of Pakistan but in the Indian side of Pakistan too and Kashmir.

Mr. SANGER: Yeah. Your caller is exactly right. One of the Army's top generals said to me a couple of weeks ago, you know, David, we can't solve Afghanistan without solving the Pakistan problem but just solving the Pakistan problem will not solve Afghanistan. The subset of that is, you can't solve the Pakistan problem without solving the ISI problem. There have been various efforts at various times of putting the intelligence service under the civilian control in Pakistan. Almost all of those efforts have failed.

It usually been under the control of the military in fact, the current head of the Pakistan military, General Kiani is a former head of the ISI. In the Bush administration, many people did not want to see the ISI brought under civilian control because their concern was the civilians get turned over pretty quickly, and the military is actually the one stable institution. And I think this is going to be a big problem that President Obama is going to have to face.

CONAN: Mike Davidson, the president-elect was asked a couple of times today if the United States claims the right to go after terrorists in other countries, doesn't India claim that same right, shouldn't it be able to go after terrorist bases, it might be able to identify inside Pakistan? Of course, those are both nuclear armed countries that have fought any number of wars in the past, could be an extremely dangerous situation.

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: It could be but there is a reason they call them transnational threats because they're transnational. So we have the right to go in and other folks do if there is an imminent threat, and let me follow up on something David was talking about. Our last clear success in Afghanistan, I think, came when we supported the Northern alliance and displaced the Taliban regime. That was a total about 250 special operations forces, troops, and maybe a 150-200 intelligence operatives from the CIA. The key part was, as David said, the Russians fought there for 10 years and lost. We fought for about six weeks and made a lot of progress. The key part was we were supporting a legitimate, indigenous movement. This is an issue the Afghan folks are going to have to figure out for themselves and win for themselves. Americans can't go in there and win it for them.

CONAN: Let's get Ann on the line. Ann with us from Minneapolis.

ANN (Caller): Yes. I am a little disappointed that the conversation has been only about military activities. I really feel strongly that we have to reestablish our diplomatic relations with everybody but especially with Europe, England, Canada, and the Middle East area, well, all over - all of the places that Bush had made us look like we think we know what the rest of the world should do, and I think Obama and Clinton need to clarify that we are partners and not empires.

CONAN: Well, let's focus on the Middle East. Is that all right, Ann?

ANN: Sure.

CONAN: All right. David Sanger, in the Middle East, clearly President-elect Obama had said that he wants to address this, but he has got a situation we won't know the next Israeli government until an election in January, and clearly, the Palestinian leadership is, well, divided, is hardly the word for it.

Mr. SANGER: That's right. I think that it won't be surprising to me if President-elect Obama gets advice that goes something like this, show interest early on in the Middle East peace process but don't try to strike a deal now with this set of governments because as you say, Israelis are in fair a bit of chaos, which has worked to President-elect Obama's advantage in that they are not threatening immediate action on Iran under these circumstances.

The Palestinians are wildly divided, and I suspect you may see him concentrate first on trying to support the Israeli-Syrian peace process and try to peel the Syrians away first from Iran. And then turn after that to the peace process. It's a very tough balancing act because many believe that President Bush came far too late to the peace process and by the time he did, the Palestinians were so divided that there was really no one to negotiate with.

CONAN: And General Davidson, let me ask you, do you share the - I know, you've heard some of the speeches that Robert Gates has been making about the need for more diplomacy and even, you know, giving them more resources. They all joke about the - what's not even a joke, that there are more members of military bands than there are U.S. diplomats overseas, foreign service officers.

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: Yeah. I do share that concern. Let me back up on the Jim Jones thing. Another thing that is not widely known perhaps is that starting about 15 years ago, and the background is Marines are always good war fighters. They are first rate at tactical and war-fighting issues. The Marine Corps began to produce something the army called the intelligent Marine and that was Tony Zeny(ph) and then it was Jim Jones and then it was Pete Pace(ph). Now, Jones knows the Middle East, he's been an envoy there. With him in the White House, I think you'll have more roads to progress and fewer road blocks than we might have with some other national security adviser.

CONAN: Ann, I hope we addressed at least some of your concerns. I think she's left us. Anyway, we thank her for the call. Let's see if we can go now to Holly(ph), Holly, with us from Miami in Florida.

HOLLY (Caller): Hi, guys. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

HOLLY: As far as the national security goes, I know Republic of Congo is not necessarily a threat, but I do think that we should at least consider perhaps taking some kind of action or some kind of role in Africa right now because of what's going on there. I know the Middle East is very important as far as our, you know, economic standpoint or what not of the United States. But I really do think that Obama and his team should really consider having some kind of role in Africa and the Republic of Congo and other countries that are suffering right now.

CONAN: Holly, thanks very much for the call. And David Sanger, as you mentioned Africa - well, Rwanda really, a formative moment in Susan Rice's career where she felt infuriated with herself among other people at the lack of American action to prevent the genocide there. In some ways, what's happening in Congo now is a reverberation of what happened in Rwanda so long ago.

Mr. SANGER: It is, but I suspect you're going to see the Obama team move somewhat cautiously. They believe we can do more in providing transportation, helicopters, helping indigenous forces there to bring Congo and Darfur under control. But I think you're going to see a significant hesitance to put Americans on the ground for a couple of reasons. First, we don't have many spares right now. Second, President Bush told us in 2007 that he was tempted to send troops in to Darfur and had been told by Condoleezza Rice, you know, Mr. President, even for the best of reasons, I don't think we can go and invade another Muslim country.

CONAN: General Davidson, that raises another question, even if you wanted to enforce things like a no fly zone, where do you put the bases? Where do you put the planes? How can you possibly do that?

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: It's going to be tough. I think there are two bright issues, hopeful issues coming up on the Africa situation. One is, I think the Obama campaign transition team has rehabilitated Samantha Powers, if I've got that name right. The one that wrote the book, "The Issue from Hell."


Major Gen. DAVIDSON: And I think it's a good sign that there is sensitivity to African issues. More importantly, there is a new combatant commander called Africa Command. And the deputy is a civilian, most of the folks in the headquarters - almost half will be civilian. It was a close call whether that should have been a State Department activity or a Pentagon activity. Pentagon one - President Obama may go back and revisit that issue. It'd be a good message to send.

CONAN: We're talking with Retired General Mike Davidson who's with us from WFPL, our member station in Louisville, Kentucky. David Sanger is also with us, Chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. We're talking about the new Obama national security team and their priorities for the upcoming administration. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

This email question from Sam in Cambridge, Massachusetts: I wonder and worry about Joe Biden's role within the security team just announced. He's perhaps the most knowledgeable of them all when it comes to world affairs, of course, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Will he be shoved aside, disgruntled and so be a loss to the Obama team? He was among those who spoke today at the news conference. I guess, David Sanger, the first time we've heard from the vice president-elect since Election Day.

Mr. SANGER: We have and I think that was quite deliberate. I think they brought him out there in part to say he too will be part of the team, and in part to remind us that he too was elected. And that he spoke at some length. He may serve a very critical role that Senator Clinton can also serve which is you don't get much of this agenda done and particularly you don't get this shift of resources to civilian capability done if you don't get Congress to fund it. And in fact the past efforts that they have had to get civilian reserve corps going have usually run into funding problems. And so I think that you'll end up seeing him work both sides of that.

CONAN: Now, let's get to Chuck on the line. Chuck with us from Ann Arbor in Michigan.

CHUCK (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call. I believe the biggest threat right now for President-elect Obama is the new pact Russia has made with Venezuela and the maneuvers they're having. Russia's naval maneuvers off the coast to Venezuela at this present time and...

CONAN: President Medvedev also touring that part of the world, I think, last week.

CHUCK: Mm hmm. Well, I heard on the radio last night on this station that Russia became an ally and committed its troops too and their full, you know, ally and ships to Venezuela.

CONAN: Well, the degree of their mutual cooperation remains to be seen, Chuck. But nevertheless, General Davidson, Russia and the direction of foreign policy in the near abroad is what they describe it in Russia to clear their activities against Georgia and intimidation of Ukraine and they are of course Europe's major energy supplier at the moment and the influence they have there. Is that what President-elect Obama was talking about with trying to reestablish old alliances in a lot of our European partners?

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: I hope so. I'm not sure of it. I certainly hope it was. What in the world did anyone think we could do in Georgia? During the Cold War, we could have 10 divisions fighting in 10 days, four divisions were prominently stationed in Europe, six division sets of equipment were permanently stationed in Europe. But right now, we've gone from 10 divisions in 10 days to six divisions in six months anywhere around the world. That was our schedule for Desert Storm. That was the schedule for Iraq, for a much smaller force. So, Russia is going to have its way and its region, and I'm not sure what military solution anyone thought we would have.

CONAN: Well, that just among the many problems that the Obama administration will inherit come January 20th. Again, we heard the names of the key members of the national security team announced today. Not yet the heads of the intelligence agencies, those should be coming further along. But stay tuned to NPR News for more discussion of the implications of this team and how they will work out with the new president-elect. We'd like to thank Retired Major General Mike Davidson with us from WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Mike, always good to talk to you.

Major Gen. DAVIDSON: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, author of the forthcoming "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenge to American Power." Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. SANGER: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up next, the Talk of the Nation opinion page and AIDS priorities. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.

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