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Team of rivals makes it work

When Barack Obama arrived at the White House about six months ago, some of his freshly minted aides weren't sure how much time or energy the new president wanted to devote to foreign policy. Back then, the nation's economic crisis seemed all-consuming. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demanded immediate attention, but so did the president's ambitious plans for health care and energy policy. That's one reason the new administration named a flock of special envoys to the Middle East, Afghanistan and other hot spots: to give the president extra time before he had to plunge in.

The appointment of so many heavy hitters instantly plunged Washington into one of its favorite pastimes: figuring out who's up and who's down. The cast of characters was irresistible. Not only was there Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State, former Gen. James Jones as national security adviser and Robert Gates as defense secretary, but former Sen. George Mitchell as envoy to the Middle East, the omnivorous Richard Holbrooke as envoy to Afghanistan and strategist Dennis Ross as envoy-in-waiting to Iran. The gossip was so ubiquitous that even Obama joined in, joking that when Clinton slipped and broke her elbow, Holbrooke was seen nearby with a can of WD-40 lubricant.

So who's running the new administration's foreign policy? The answer turns out to be simple, clear and — in retrospect — obvious: Obama.

The new president didn't avoid foreign policy; instead, he piled more items on the agenda. He immersed himself in reviews of policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. He took advantage of his own novelty to announce a "reset" of U.S. relations with Russia, Europe and the Islamic world. And he launched a campaign for global nuclear disarmament, one of his long-running passions but not, strictly speaking, an immediate necessity.

But he encountered obstacles as well. Iran's hard-line regime spurned Obama's outstretched hand. Russia's Vladimir Putin appeared unmoved by his visit. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuffed Obama's demand for a freeze on Jewish settlements. And Arab governments balked at his requests for positive gestures toward Israel.

And that's where all those special envoys come in. Obama's going to need his unusual collection of big talents (and big egos) to work well together. Defying both the gossips and the odds, they have.

There has been vigorous internal debate: On Afghanistan, for example, military commanders sought a commitment for more combat troops while Vice President Joe Biden warned of the perils of trying to do too much. But nothing has qualified as a major split.

The division of labor seems to have worked out this way: Mitchell works quietly on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Holbrooke works noisily on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Biden handles Iraq. Ross started out in charge of Iran but (with no prospect for negotiations there at the moment) was promoted to a bigger job designing policy on everything from Israel to Pakistan.

What has that left for Hillary Clinton? She has looked a little marginalized, even though she's responsible for the big powers: Europe, Russia, India and China (which she shares with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner). Without a crisis on her plate, there has been no spotlight on her work.

So when Clinton gave what might otherwise have been a routine speech earlier this month, her aides billed it as a major address, a coming-out for a foreign policy heavyweight. With Holbrooke, Mitchell and Ross all present in a ritual display of fealty, the secretary of state staked her claim as chief articulator of Obama's global vision. She declared her enthusiasm for Obama's doctrine of relentless "engagement" with adversaries such as Iran (an idea she denounced when she was running against him), said her job was to build "an architecture of global cooperation," and headed for India.

Inside the White House, the president also turns for advice to two little-known aides who have one advantage over the stars in the Cabinet: They've known him longer. One is Mark Lippert, Obama's chief foreign policy adviser in his four years in the Senate, who served in Iraq as a Navy reservist; the other is Denis McDonough, a former Senate aide who ran the campaign's foreign policy side. Lippert and McDonough have deliberately kept a low profile, but you're likely to hear more from them in the years ahead.

The man who's trying to keep all these stars from colliding is Jones, who retired from the Marine Corps two years ago after serving as commander of U.S. forces in Europe. Jones was an unusual choice as national security adviser; he barely knew the president-elect when Obama asked him to take the job. At 65, Jones is the designated elder, charged with setting up a structure in which Obama's foreign policy team of rivals can function smoothly and making sure that it does.

Before he took the job, Jones told me recently, he was warned: "If you think the national security adviser is the only one he's going to be listening to, you're in for a disappointment."

Obama has ensured that all his advisers speak up at National Security Council meetings — a way, among other things, for him to take the measure of his staff. As a result, Jones said, "Everybody will leave the room knowing that they've had a chance to give it their best shot … and that breeds an enormous amount of collegiality and buy-in."

But, he notes, with all that emphasis on bottom-up participation, it can take a long time to get a decision made.

Six months into his presidency, it's clear that Obama intends to remain deeply engaged in foreign policy, even as domestic issues command his attention. Can his overqualified team continue to work as seamlessly as it has until now? Not likely; tough, potentially divisive decisions lie ahead on issues such as Israel and Iran. But it won't be dull.

Team of rivals makes it work 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 6:27pm]
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