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David Ignatius

A new course for ship of state

WASHINGTON — Back in July 2007, when the possibility that Barack Obama might win the presidency was still just a gleam in the candidate's eye, he met with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to ask for some advice. But he wasn't after the usual campaign position papers or sound bites. Obama was already thinking in bigger terms.

What can a new president accomplish in foreign policy in his first 12 months in office that he can't achieve later? Obama wanted to know. How should a new president reorganize his national security team so that the structure fits the problems of the 21st century? Brzezinski came away deeply impressed, and he became an informal Obama adviser.

With Tuesday's victory, Obama and his advisers get to think about these global questions full time. Conversations over the past few days with several members of the president-elect's inner circle yielded some basic outlines of the new administration's approach to foreign policy:

• Obama wants to pick his foreign policy roster first, and then turn to substance. "There was a tendency to try to do both personnel and policy simultaneously in the past, and it stumbled," said one key adviser. Among the big questions are whether to ask Bob Gates to stay on as defense secretary, or, if not, whether to appoint a prominent Republican as secretary of state, such as Sen. Richard Lugar or Sen. Chuck Hagel. Either way, Obama wants a bipartisan team.

• As he builds his team, Obama wants to spend time listening to experts who can advise him on policies. The former law professor is being characteristically deliberative. He doesn't want to make up his mind until he's heard from all sides. That consensual style is likely to be a trademark of his administration.

• For national security adviser, Obama is likely to pick a pragmatist. "He wants to find out what works — what advances U.S. national interests. … If secret diplomacy is required to achieve your objectives, he would certainly accept that," says Gregory B. Craig, a Washington lawyer who's on the short list for a top position.

• During the transition, Obama won't meddle in the Bush administration's decisions — and he won't allow other governments to end-run Bush. "He's not going to do anything that gives the idea they don't have to negotiate with this administration," says the adviser. This insistence on "one president at a time" is especially important in the deadlocked negotiations with Iraq over a new status-of-forces agreement. Several Obama aides caution that the Iraqis shouldn't drag their feet and hope for a better deal.

• Obama wants to make an early push on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, despite political turmoil in Israel. He has learned from watching Presidents Clinton and Bush that you can't wait until the 11th hour to be an active mediator. Similarly, he wants to work quickly to build strategic relationships with Russia and China, and to reassure both countries that the United States doesn't threaten them.

• On Iran, Obama wants to open the door to a process of engagement and dialogue, even though his advisers aren't confident it will succeed. They think Iran may not yet have found the language of "yes," but that's no reason not to explore areas of possible common interest.

• On Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will listen carefully to advice from Gen. David Petraeus, the CentCom commander, and other military leaders before making decisions. Petraeus will make his recommendations on Afghanistan in January, and the early indications are that he will recommend a strategy of "surge first, then negotiate" — that is, building up security in Afghan cities with additional U.S. troops before beginning talks with Taliban "reconcilables" about how to settle the conflict. That approach would fit well with Obama's view on Afghanistan, one key adviser said.

• Finally, Obama's advisers are thinking about how to use his youth, charisma and African-American heritage to transform America's ailing image abroad. Already, there are discussions about his travel schedule — and whether he should travel first to Asia before he goes to Europe for the NATO 60th-anniversary celebration in April. "How do we take advantage of the momentum coming out of this victory?" asks one top aide.

"I think he's going to change course, but that he will be cautious," says Brzezinski. For now, those are the two channel markers for Obama foreign policy — change and caution. After the Bush years, both are likely to be welcome abroad.

David Ignatius' e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

A new course for ship of state 11/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 12:51pm]
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