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Change or More of the Same? Obama Introduces National Security Team

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President-elect Barack Obama named former rival, Senator Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State on Monday and said Robert Gates would remain Defense Secretary. Other nominees included retired General James Jones to be National Security Adviser and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. Is that change or more of the same? We speak with investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation magazine and Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Barack Obama officially introduced his national security team at a news conference in Chicago yesterday in announcing his choices of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to be Secretary of State, Defense Secretary Robert Gates to continue in the office and retired Marine General James Jones to serve as National Security Adviser. Obama selected the core group of people who will be in charge of foreign policy decisions in his administration. Obama praised their qualifications and records of service in government and civilian life.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: In their past service and plans for the future, these men and women represent all of those elements of American power and the very best of the American example. They have served in uniform and as diplomats. They’ve worked as legislators, law enforcement officials and executives. They share my pragmatism about the use of power and my sense of purpose about America’s role as a leader in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: After Obama’s introduction, each cabinet nominee gave brief remarks. The first was Senator Hillary Clinton. If confirmed as Secretary of State, she would be the nation’s top diplomat in the Obama administration.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: By electing Barack Obama our next president, the American people have demanded not just a new direction at home, but a new effort to renew America’s standing in the world as a force for positive change. We know our security, our values and our interests cannot be protected and advanced by force alone, nor, indeed, by Americans alone. We must pursue vigorous diplomacy using all the tools we can muster to build a future with more partners and fewer adversaries, more opportunities and fewer dangers, for all who seek freedom, peace and prosperity.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama asked that Robert Gates remain as Secretary of Defense, a post he has held since late 2006 when he was tapped by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to that, Gates served as director of the CIA under President George H.W. Bush. Questions have swirled around his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal and his role in the US government’s arming of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. At yesterday’s news conference, he thanked Obama for his offer to continue as Defense Secretary.

    ROBERT GATES: I am deeply honored that the President-elect has asked me to continue as Secretary of Defense. Mindful that we are engaged in two wars and face other serious challenges at home and around the world and with a profound sense of personal responsibility to and for our men and women in uniform and their families, I must do my duty as they do theirs. How could I do otherwise?

AMY GOODMAN: President-elect Obama introduced retired Marine General James Jones as his National Security Adviser. Jones is the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. He now sits on the board of Chevron and is president and chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy. The institute has been criticized by environmental groups for, among other things, calling for the immediate expansion of domestic oil and gas production and issuing reports that challenge the use of the Clean Air Act to combat global warming. Jones thanked Obama for selecting him as his National Security Adviser.

    JAMES JONES: As has been previously mentioned, national security in the twenty-first century comprises a portfolio which includes all elements of our national power and influence, working in coordination and harmony towards the desired goal of keeping our nation safe, helping to make our world a better place, and providing opportunity to live in peace and security for the generations to follow. I’m deeply humbled, deeply appreciative of this great opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Among his other cabinet selections, Obama also named Susan Rice as his ambassador to the United Nations. Rice served as a senior foreign policy aide to Obama during his campaign. Under the Clinton administration, Rice worked for the National Security Council and the State Department. At yesterday’s news conference, she outlined some of the challenges that lay ahead.

    SUSAN RICE: With your election, Mr. President-elect, the American people have signaled to the world that our nation is on the path to change. Now we must fulfill that promise by joining with others to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the twenty-first century, to prevent conflict, to promote peace, combat terrorism, prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, tackle climate change, end genocide, fight poverty and disease.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on Obama’s national security team, we’re joined by two guests in Washington, D.C. Robert Dreyfuss is investigative reporter and contributing editor at The Nation magazine. His blog, “The Dreyfuss Report,” is available at nation.com. Steven Clemons is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where he directs the American Strategy Program. He runs the popular blog thewashingtonnote.com.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Steve Clemons, let’s begin with you. Your assessment of the national security team, starting with Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and James Jones?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, it’s certainly a fascinating trio. And when you take all of them together, it has created some grief on some parts of the liberal political establishment that were saying, “Hey, wait. Didn’t we elect Barack Obama, not a Clintonized version of him?” I’ve encouraged people to take a step back, because one of my concerns during the campaign was that frequently, as my friend Bob Dreyfuss pointed out, Obama kind of carved out a McCain-like position on Pakistan, on the role and future of the Pentagon. He actually wanted to increase the size of the military force, etc. And I think that we are going to see a lot of Pentagon-hugging strategies from this group.

What’s interesting, though, it’s not a status quo-preserving group. I think if you were to imagine some of the big, I’ll say, sort of Nixon-goes-to-China moments that this country needs, particularly with Iran, with countries like Cuba, delivering on Syria and getting it on a Libya-like track, this team seems to me more able to do that kind of thing than many other assemblies. And so, while I know that Hillary Clinton during the campaign was very much an advocate of coercive diplomacy, something that I thought she talked too little about carrots and too much about sticks, I do think that she has got to rewire herself and have a makeover, essentially, and will, in much the way Obama has. Obama is not the same guy who ran during the election. We’re seeing a very different Obama today. And I think, to some degree, we’re going to see a different Hillary Clinton.

Just in quick conclusion, the problem with this team is it’s very, very big guns. If Barack Obama takes his eye off the ball for a moment, if he’s not engaged with these people for a moment, if he puts any — allows any distance to grow between himself and what he issues as national security policy and these big changes he wants to achieve, then I think we’re going to end up with a paralyzed national security team. So, I think in many ways it’s a brilliant move, but it’s hugely risky.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, your assessment?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I agree with many of the things that Steve said, but I think it’s important to point out that the people who aren’t named, the people who weren’t picked by Obama, were the people who weren’t on the stage yesterday with the President-elect. There was nobody there from the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party. There were none of the liberal senators or even people like Jim Webb, who spoke out against the war. John Kerry and Al Gore weren’t there. Bill Richardson wasn’t there. You didn’t find — I mean, so you can go down a long list of people who he didn’t choose. Instead, he chose what the Wall Street Journal and many other publications are calling a war cabinet.

And the problem is, in order to fulfill his central campaign promise, which is to get our troops out of Iraq, he is going to have to do some, I think, direct hand-to-hand combat with people like Robert Gates and General Petraeus, who has political ambitions of his own, Admiral Mullen at the Joint Chiefs and elsewhere, who are going to be urging him to slow down, to take a step back, to relax, to, you know, not mess up the surge that Gates has spent the last two years overseeing. So I think he’ll be under a lot of pressure from the national security team that he himself is creating to slow down his withdrawal from Iraq. And he certainly left the door open for that.

More generally, he pledged during the campaign to escalate the war in Afghanistan, which I think the rest of his team is fully in support of. Certainly, Robert Gates and Petraeus have endorsed the notion of adding another 20,000 or 25,000 troops to that failed war, which I think is another catastrophically bad decision. And he may find himself turning what had been Bush’s failed war in Afghanistan into his own failed war, especially if he carries it over across the border into Afghanistan.

So I think that the problem here is that the Obama that tilted to the right during the election campaign, supposedly to protect himself against Republican criticism, in fact turns out to be the real Obama. And when he says, “Change comes from me,” we’re seeing the kind of change that he believes in in appointing a centrist pro-military cabinet. So that means, in effect, that it’s change, yes, in that they’re not neoconservatives — certainly they’re not going to look like John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz and Dougie Feith in power, but it’s going to look very much like the national security establishment of the Cold War and the post-Cold War ’90s.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Robert Dreyfuss with The Nation, he is author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. His blog is at nation.com. We’re also talking to Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation and Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation. We’re talking about the new — well, what people are calling the war cabinet. In fact, just looking at the numbers, there were 130 members of the House, twenty-three members of the Senate, who voted against war. Barack Obama did not choose one of them to be in his cabinet.

I wanted to asked Steven Clemons about Jim Jones, about the new National Security Adviser who he has chosen. Looking at a piece in the Los Angeles Times today — you know, he’s on the board of — this is Jim Jones, General Jim Jones — on the board of Chevron and Boeing and has been president and chief executive of the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, which has been criticized by environmental groups. “They have a reprehensible record,” said Frank O’Donnell, the outspoken leader of Clean Air Watch, of the institute led by Jones. The institute calls for the immediate expansion of domestic oil and gas production, nuclear energy and clean coal technology, in addition to investment in renewable and alternative energy sources.

O’Donnell criticized institute reports under Jones that challenged the use of the Clean Air Act to combat global warming and the right of states, such as California, to impose environmental standards that go beyond those set by the federal government. O’Donnell said, “Since global warming is a security threat, this selection raises a real eyebrow.” He asked, “Will Jones be predisposed to compromise the new administration’s environmental agenda, both at home and in the international arena? Stay tuned.”

Steven Clemons?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think it’s a legitimate question. I mean, there’s no doubt that General Jones is a leading member of what you would classically call, in Eisenhower’s sense, the military-industrial complex. And Barack Obama is making a very conscious decision to bring in someone like Jones, who does have the sort of profile he does with Chevron, with Boeing, with large firms that are part of the defense industry. He also has other parts of his profile, where, as you mentioned, he was Supreme Commander of NATO. He was the envoy, the Middle East envoy for Defense, sort of looking at the national security issues in the Middle East region.

And so, when you look at any one of the profiles — you can move onto Hillary Clinton or even Bob Gates. I think that Bob Dreyfuss characterized Gates pretty well, not — I think that Gates is an unusual choice. I was prepared to oppose him staying on for a variety of reasons, mostly because why would you want a guy who played a certain important role in out-Cheneying Cheney, in my view, in the Bush administration? Why would you want that same sort of constraint in a new forward-leaping, forward-looking Obama cabinet? But, I’ve grown in a different direction, moved in a different direction on —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “out-Cheneying Cheney”?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think that one of the things that both Jones and Gates have, which is in the positive column for them, is that they understand the national security inter-agency decision-making process virtually better than anyone else, and they can crunch out the kind of ambiguity that people like David Addington and Vice President Cheney, John Hannah, who was Cheney’s National Security Advisers, and others, use to exploit to move their agenda. You found people like Stephen Hadley and Condi Rice very, very poor at generating that kind of understanding of both presidential priorities, established White House policy. And in that ambiguity, that is where we got hatched the Iraq war, in my view, and some very other misguided steps that got this country very close to new sets of wars, particularly with Iran most recently, that didn’t happen. So I think, to some degree, we owe Gates something for keeping us from tilting over the edge again with Iran.

But why would you want that in the Obama cabinet? Why would you want someone like Jim Jones, who, as you said, is sort of representing the oil industry and the military-industrial complex? That — it tells me that, on one hand, Obama is not putting them there to deal with climate change. That’s not going to be part of their portfolio. The only reason that they make sense is if Obama does anything strong with regard to rechanging and reshaping America’s strategic position with the Middle East and trying to get us onto a different railroad track with certain key countries like China, Russia and Iran. Otherwise, this team makes no sense at all. So, the other issues that are part of their portfolios, certainly, I agree, are problematic, but that doesn’t seem to me to be why they are there as part of Obama’s team.

I think he’s had a fear, particularly given his position of saying that he would meet some of the world’s leading sort of thugs, if you will, and believed in engagement. I thought that was one of Obama’s greater strengths. I thought, you know, we do need to have some game-changing moves in America’s strategic position, and we do need to talk to our enemies as well as to our friends. But he has been afraid, I think, of being called the appeaser-in-chief, if he really began moving. And I began to fear, frankly, one of the things that hasn’t been talked much about. What if he had come in and brought in a lot of the people that Bob Dreyfuss had suggested should be part of that cabinet? I think Obama would have to go out and bomb a small country or something to show he was tough and had the ability to deploy force, so that he could then say, “Aha, now I can still begin talking about, you know, a different direction with Raul Castro, a different direction with the Supreme Leader in Iran, Khamenei.”

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss?

STEVEN CLEMONS: So, to a certain degree — yeah, I’m sorry to go on so long.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get a comment from Robert on that.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, there’s a few things to say here. First of all, there is a connection between national security and energy, and General Jones is at the very heart of that. When he was at NATO as the NATO commander, he did what he could to steer NATO in the direction of taking on the responsibility of out-of-area action in regard to securing energy supplies, which points NATO in the same direction that the Bush administration and, of course, many other administrations have gone, in terms of taking military responsibility for the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, which is really what the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is going to be about, to the extent that the United States believes and NATO believes that it’s responsible for securing that part of the world and protecting energy supplies. It isn’t necessarily a cooperative approach, where we then go to the big energy users like Japan and China and India and talk to Russia, as well, about a cooperative effort to stabilize that part of the world, but a more unilateral one. So that’s a concern.

A second point I would make is that the people at the next levels down, at both the State and Defense Department, is going to be very, very important. And there’s no indication at all that Barack Obama intends to oversee that process. Who Robert Gates keeps on at the Defense Department, including some fairly troubling characters in important posts there, is something that we’re going to have to watch very closely. And as well, at the State Department, whether Hillary Clinton turns to people, including some of the muscular Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke and, in particular, Dennis Ross, who is now ensconced at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is an AIPAC spin-off, and brings these people in to help run the State Department, is another big question.

So, there’s a lot of aspects of managing a huge foreign policy apparatus that cannot reside in the hands of Barack Obama alone. He is not going to do this — change is not going to come from him personally, except in the broadest outline. The implementation of foreign policy is going to come from the people that he picks.

And the last comment I would say is that he hasn’t picked anyone yet for the intelligence posts. That’s another case where — well, he’s leaning toward Admiral Blair, who’s another component of the military-industrial complex. But the fact that he hasn’t picked an intelligence person tells us again something important about the approach that he’s going to take, because the intelligence system in the United States has traditionally been a bastion of opposition to neoconservative ideology. And I think there’s a lot of people who are going to be elbowing to make sure that he doesn’t pick someone in that job who might speak out against some of those policies. In particular —

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been very interesting watching the networks now. I can’t figure out who is more laudatory in the discussions on the networks, the Democrats or the Republicans, of Barack Obama’s choices. There is hardly any debate around this.

I wanted to see what you think of this, Robert Dreyfuss, Steve Zunes’s piece at Alternet, saying, “Hillary Clinton allied herself with the Bush administration on many its most controversial actions, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, threats of war against Iran, support for Israel’s 2006 offensive against Lebanon and 2002 offensive in the West Bank, opposition to the International Criminal Court, attacks against the International Court of Justice, and support for the unrestricted export of cluster bombs and other anti-personnel munitions used against civilian targets.”

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, you know, it’s true that she supported all those things. In part, though, the trauma of 9/11 shifted politics radically toward the right, and a lot of people — and I’m not excusing Clinton’s decisions, but a lot of people got caught up in that avalanche. Obama distinguished himself by not being caught up in it. I think the fact that Clinton supported that long sort of litany of things is troubling to me and to many other people who are hoping for a clean break, to use a term of art that the Bush administration got caught up in, to make a clean break with a lot of those past policies. I think it’s going to be difficult for him to execute that pivot. I think it’s going to be a battle on many of these issues with Senator Clinton to make sure that she stays on message.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve written about it possibly being a moment for Barack Obama to distinguish himself outside of the cabinet he has chosen, that people could possibly be — expect this.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: I think people put too much faith in Barack Obama, the person. I think he has asked us to make a leap of faith in thinking that he can be the embodiment of the change that people have been hoping for. In fact, it can’t be done by one person. And in fact, it isn’t clear yet that Barack Obama is the person to bring that change.

I think the message of this war cabinet that he’s named is that critics of the Bush administration policy and people in the peace and justice movement are going to have to continue to mobilize, that it’s not a time to relax. It’s a time for demonstrations and letter writing and grassroots activity, to make sure that what we hope will be a more responsive administration to those kinds of activities will actually start to pay attention to them, whereas with the Bush administration, we were clearly knocking on a locked door.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Susan Rice? Your assessment of Susan Rice as the UN ambassador? Let’s go to Steve Clemons on that.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, I think Susan Rice is a believer in coercive tools, as well. She’s well known for, after Rwanda and after other comments about significant genocidal moments, that she would advocate very strong military intervention in issues. And I think that she is a conscientious part of the global justice part of the foreign policy community today that’s very focused on climate change, poverty remediation in the world, dealing with disease and AIDS and development and nuclear nonproliferation, these sorts of issues that don’t fit neatly into the kind of classic geostrategic sorts of issues that I think Bob Gates and Jim Jones and, to some degree, Hillary Clinton in part represent. And so, I think that she is going to be quite talented and important for the United States in restoring at least a sense of commitment to these big, broad international issues.

One of the problems, though, that Barack Obama is courting is that people like Susan and Tony Lake to some degree represent a kind of liberal interventionism, if you will. To some degree, there’s a crowd of folks in the Democratic foreign policy establishment which are either the structural realists, where I think I would put myself, that think that the America’s national security position has been so eroded that you’ve got to be very cautious before throwing military force at any other issue in the world today, because we’ve got to fundamentally rethink our engagement and move much more cautiously. Then there is a values-driven crowd, which I think is often focused on very good and important objectives, but they don’t quite know how to get there, and they don’t often set the sorts of priorities that I think help deliver that. And to some degree, we saw that in the right with the neoconservative establishment, quite reckless in that case, deploying force recklessly.

And I think that Susan, to some degree, belongs to this crowd that wants to achieve great objectives in the world, but my view is I think she needs to work a bit more on the game plan to get there. But overall, I think it’s very wise for Barack Obama to send someone who’s so committed to these issues to the United Nations and represent us there. It certainly is a huge step over someone like John Bolton in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, we just have thirty seconds. Do you think we’ll see antiwar protests at the inauguration, as we saw with President Bush?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Oh, I’m sure there will be some protesters, but I don’t think the country is prepared for any kind of mass movement yet. I think it will be small and contained. I think you’re more likely to see an outpouring of tremendous support. In fact, Washington is preparing for maybe as many as two million or more people to come and celebrate the inauguration. So I think we’re not yet at the stage where people have woken up to the fact that the struggle continues and that the millennium is not here yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss of The Nation magazine, author of Devil’s Game, I want to thank you for being with us. And Steve Clemons of New America Foundation, thank you.

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