Obama's All-Star Lineup

December 11, 2008 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: Americas Tags: War In AfghanistanSix-party Talks

Obama's All-Star Lineup

Obama has a seasoned team. But he needs to order its members to focus on specific areas if he wants to be successful in enacting his agenda.

It doesn't rain anymore, it pours. And as the Obama foreign policy and national-security team takes shape, it may be wise for the president-elect to begin designating "designated hitters" for specific issues.

All we have to do is look at today's headlines to see the challenges awaiting the new president. The Six-Party Talks in Beijing ended today with no agreement on a verification regime, with participants making it clear the attitude is to wait for the next administration. Pakistan put Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, under house arrest-but does not want to hand over any detained militants to India, putting the United States in a delicate position as it maneuvers between India's demands for justice against terrorism with how much the civilian, democratically-elected government in Pakistan is capable of doing. A suicide bombing in Kirkuk in northern Iraq-yet another attempt to foment instability between Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds in advance of settling the final status of the city.

And the list goes on-the climate talks in Poland exposed a major gap between the developed North and West and the rising South and East-making an agreement much more difficult to forge. An outbreak of bird flu in Hong Kong. The possible choking off of the U.S. supply line to Afghanistan via Pakistan and the Russian overture to Europe to supply their forces in Afghanistan via the Eurasian space.

The president certainly wants coordination among his national-security team-but coordination should not mean forging lowest-common denominator agreement on policy or the same level of active involvement by every team member in every issue. There is only so much time in the day.

Why should Obama have "point-people" on issues? Because there is an attempt to use the transition period to weaken the U.S. position-in the hopes that when the new president is "ready to act" he will be in a weaker bargaining stance. Some experts, for instance, are concerned that the latest North Korean delay is designed to give Pyongyang time to improve its bargaining position-allowing it to enrich more uranium that could then be hidden away in sites not on the inspection list, or trying to develop a nuclear device that can feasibly be mounted on one of its ballistic missiles. (At present, the North Korean threat remains separated: ballistic missiles that can hit targets in the Asia-Pacific region, and a nuclear-weapons capability-but the two have not been successfully married. On day one, there should be a renewed effort to forge consensus with Beijing on settling this matter-especially because Pyongyang rejected the proposal put forward by China.

It's clear that there is a renewed effort to provoke violence in Iraq, particularly to destabilize the north. The eruption of a new civil war would either delay the new president's plans to begin drawing down U.S. forces (and transferring them to Afghanistan) or raise the specter that any U.S. departure would be interpreted as "defeat" (a return to the stark choices of 2005-06). The tenuous peace between India and Pakistan is holding-but because both countries have elected governments, senior decision makers are not immune to public pressures from below.

How tasks are assigned depends, to some extent, on staff choices around the senior appointees. If Secretary Gates keeps around him, for the transition period, a cadre of staff well-versed in the logistical and operational problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as DC operators who can work well with General David Petraeus, the combatant commander for the region, he might be a logical appointee. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton seems a logical choice for picking up right where outgoing Secretary of State Rice leaves off when it comes to India and Pakistan. I am still not sure about what shape this new office of the advisor to the president on energy policy is going to take-and whether it will be headed by former-EPA head Carol Browner-but having the person coordinating domestic affairs also take the lead on international negotiations may produce a more workable agreement than having diplomats negotiating a new climate-change arrangement that has little chance of passing a Senate vote.

A lot is landing on the shoulders of the new administration, and past history-including the honeymoon period for a new administration-is not an effective guide for what lies ahead.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.