Security with Hillary
The Obama national-security team.


‘By far and away the best I think we could have imagined,” a former Bush administration official tells National Review Online about Monday’s unveiling of Barack Obama’s national-security team. “Gates is a pro and Hillary will have to play to his level, which will keep her more in line.”

Conservatives are not receiving the news with unbridled celebration, of course, and some are more skeptical than others.

Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton eschews questions about how Hillary will do and who might clash — in other words, what everyone in the media wants to talk about today. “Predicting post-inauguration policy outcomes at this stage of the transition is a waste of time,” he tells NRO. “For now, we should concentrate on developing and refining policy analysis, and leave entrail-reading to those who deal in entrails.”

He does offer this, however: “That said, even if we are ‘merely’ returning to Clinton administration policies, why should we be happy about that?”

NRO asked some of the more right-leaning foreign-policy experts for their take on the Obama team:

Senator Clinton has a limited record to draw on when it comes to predicting her actions as secretary of state. China, one of the most important issues, was barely mentioned during the presidential campaign.

If one takes the administration of her husband as a guide, there are reasons for both optimism and concern: the U.S. pursued a respectable Taiwan policy, thanks to defense officials who recognized the need for better coordination with Taiwan’s military; on Tibet, a senior diplomat was appointed to advance religious freedom and human rights there. However, these actions were more than offset by President Clinton’s conflation of American business interests with America’s national interest, in particular the “de-linking” of China’s trade status from human-rights considerations.

There is no one in the cadre of advisers for the Obama administration that suggests a new course for China policy. In the past, Congress has been vital to curbing the excessively concessional China policies of the executive branch; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi should revive the important role she and other Democrats played in this regard during the Clinton administration. Secretary Clinton should see such a development on the Hill as helpful to her to chart an independent, principled China policy. 

– Ellen Bork works on human rights issues at Freedom House.

A team of rivals they are not. But it is too soon to tell how well Obama’s team will perform under fire.

The new national-security crew is remarkably well-credentialed – then again, so was the bench that George W. Bush recruited. The key thing to watch is the relationship between the secretaries of state and defense. When they don’t share trust and confidence, trouble follows. This proved the case when Cap Weinberger and George Shultz couldn’t agree on a policy toward the Contras in Latin America: Reagan turned the problem over to the National Security Council (NSC), and the Iran-Contra scandal followed. Likewise, the Rumsfeld-Powell mistrust hardly served Bush well.

A president cannot impose cooperation, and the NSC adviser is not a referee. A dominant NSC adviser, like Kissinger, is not something to be admired. It’s a sign that the president cannot trust or lead his national-security team. It all comes down to the competency and character of the secretaries. We’ll see.

Another sign to watch for is the White House/Washington divide over foreign policy. Many of Obama’s campaign promises were really out there. His secretary and NSC adviser designates are much more mainstream. If the president pulls left and cabinet pulls right, it could become a team of rivals.

– James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

The State Department is a difficult horse to ride. More often, it’s the horse that rides you. A secretary of state learns quickly: You can cheerlead for the department. You can represent its policy preferences and interests to the White House. You can find yourself undercut and undermined by those who, on paper, work for you.

Importantly, there is at the State Department today an enthusiasm for Barack Obama that there never was for George W. Bush. Obama/Clinton foreign policies are not likely to rankle the folks at Foggy Bottom as did Bush/Cheney policies.

Hillary Clinton is, obviously, a tough cookie. She does not like to be pushed around, nor does she suffer fools gladly. So it is possible that she may at least attempt to bend the bureaucracy to her will.

Hillary does not appear to be far to the left on foreign policy. She is almost certainly to the right of someone like Chuck Hagel (whom Obama might have chosen instead). It is hard to see Secretary Clinton being as solicitous of dictators as was Madeleine Albright. Hillary voted for the U.S. intervention in Iraq and never apologized for it. She does not believe that diplomacy can be all carrots and no sticks.

Her challenges: She is not personally close to Obama. As was made clear at the press conference this morning, she has been chosen to be part of a team, not the star player. Other players, like Defense Secretary Bob Gates and incoming National Security Advisor James Jones, will not necessarily be overly deferential towards her. As a manager, Obama has made an interesting choice.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.