In 2000 a Republican presidential candidate with no foreign policy experience answered critics by touting his team of eminent advisers.
George Bush's foreign-policy team was nicknamed the Vulcans (a term meant to convey toughness) and was led by Condoleezza Rice. It included middleweights from the first Bush and Reagan administrations such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle and was backed up by heavyweights such as Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.
Yet this trove of experience didn't save the president from his Mideast blunders. On the contrary, these advisers bear responsibility for his failures.
That leads to an obvious question. Can a group of foreign-policy advisers who start with far less hefty resumes and reputations do better for a Democratic candidate who lacks foreign-policy experience? Perhaps, but the jury is still out.
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The next president will face important strategic challenges from the moment he takes office, so he needs a team with the depth to address those problems from the get-go. Yet Obama's team is difficult to judge.
Not foreign-policy establishment
His foreign-policy group has interesting resumes that are as different as can be from the Vulcans'. So far, I can't conjure up an apt name for this disparate team, which ranges from former Senate staffers to lesser-known Clinton aides to two-star generals to professors. They definitely don't represent the foreign policy establishment.
“They reflect the candidate,” says Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an adviser to Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign. “They are not the same old faces we saw in the last round; there are a lot of new faces like Obama, and they are relatively new players. But they have been in the middle of the Democratic Party's foreign-policy debate.”
Although the team includes retired generals, it clearly stresses the non-military side of foreign policy: diplomacy, multilateralism, humanitarian aid and human rights. Denis McDonough, the campaign's national security coordinator, summed up their outlook as follows: “The team is largely pragmatic, and … there is not any particular ideology; we are trying to get back to what works.
“Everybody recognizes we have to use all elements of our national power. The use of force is a vital tool but not the only one.”
The names of the core team are probably unfamiliar to most Americans, so I'm listing them below:
McDonough, a former foreign-policy adviser to ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and outspoken on climate change and energy issues.
Mark Lippert, Obama's principal staffer on the Senate foreign relations committee and just returning from a tour as a naval reservist in Iraq.
Ben Rhodes, principal Obama speechwriter on national security, who helped write the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report that advocated engagement with Iran and Syria.
Anthony Lake, President Clinton's first national-security adviser. The low-profile Lake was not regarded as one of the stronger performers on the Clinton team and was rejected as nominee for CIA director by a Republican Congress.
Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Clinton.
Richard Danzig, Clinton's secretary of the Navy, who has been a consultant to the Department of Defense on bioterrorism.
Jonathan Scott Gration, a retired two-star general, who helped run the air war during the Iraq invasion. A Swahili speaker who grew up in Congo, he met Obama on a trip to Africa.
Gregory Craig, lead defense lawyer for Clinton during his impeachment, who also served as director of policy planning for the State Department at the end of the Clinton administration.
Sarah Sewall, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance under Clinton; she worked with Gen. David Petraeus on sections of the Army's new counterinsurgency manual.
Samantha Power, journalist, Harvard professor and author of a seminal book on genocide, was a close adviser until forced to resign because of an interview in which she disparaged Hillary Clinton.
The campaign also consults regularly with former Sens. Sam Nunn and David Boren on defense issues. Zbigniew Brzezinski “is a supporter but not an adviser,” I was told by a senior campaign staffer.
The core group seems to have scant expertise in the area that will most confound our next president: the Middle East.
Broaden the group
Of course, the campaign has satellite groups of experts – around 300, I'm told – who meet occasionally to discuss various regional and strategic issues. The campaign requests Mideast advice on an ad hoc basis, from several Democratic members of Congress, and from various experts. The list needs a lot of broadening.
Now that Obama has clinched the nomination, he is well placed to strengthen his team and bring in more area expertise. He should seize that chance.
Experience isn't everything, as the Vulcans proved. But in a campaign where foreign policy is key, a bias against experience could be self-defeating. What really did the Vulcans in was that they were sure they knew everything. They refused to recognize what they didn't know.