Obama’s “New” National Security Team Is Not Very New

By Tom Engelhardt ICH // The New Republic 11/28/08

The Obama national security “team” — part of that much-hailed “team of rivals” — does not yet exist, but it does seem to be heaving into view. And so far, its views seem anything but rivalrous. Mainstream reporters and pundits lovingly refer to them as “centrist,” but, in a Democratic context, they are distinctly right of center. The next secretary of state looks to be Hillary Clinton, a hawk on the Middle East. During the campaign, she spoke of our ability to “totally obliterate” Iran, should that country carry out a nuclear strike against Israel. She will evidently be allowed to bring her own (hawkish) subordinates into the State Department with her. Her prospective appointment is now being praised by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Henry Kissinger.

The leading candidate for National Security Advisor is General James L. Jones, former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander, who remained “publicly neutral” during the presidential campaign and is known to be personally close to John McCain and, evidently, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as well. Not surprisingly, he favors yet more spending for the Pentagon. The reputed leading candidate for Director of the CIA, John Brennan, now head of the National Counterterrorism Center, was George Tenet’s chief of staff and deputy executive director during the worst years of the CIA’s intelligence, imprisonment, and torturing excesses.

The new Secretary of Defense is odds on to be… the old secretary of defense, Robert Gates, a confidant of the first President Bush. Still surrounded at the Pentagon by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s holdovers, he has had a long career in Washington as a clever apparatchik. He was the adult brought in — the story of how and by whom has yet to be told — to clean up the Bush foreign policy mess (and probably prevent an attack on Iran). He did this. He now favors no fixed timelines for an Iraq withdrawal, but a significant American troop “surge” in Afghanistan, “well north of 20,000,” in the next 12-18 months. He has overseen the further growth of the bloated Pentagon budget and has recently come out for the building of a new generation of nuclear weapons. (Other candidates for Defense include former Clinton Navy Secretary and key Obama advisor Richard Danzig, who may end up — for the time being — as an undersecretary of defense, Clinton former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who might instead land the job as the Director of National Intelligence.)

Drop down a tier, as Yochi Dreazen of the Wall Street Journal wrote last week, and you find the Obama transition people using a little known think-tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNSA), as a “top farm team” to stock its national security shelves. The founders of the center are — don’t be shocked now — former Clinton administration officials providing yet more “centrists” to an administration that seems to believe the essence of “experience” is having been in Washington between 1992 and 2000. CNAS, by the way, is officially against a fixed timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. In that, it seems typical of the coalescing national security team, almost none of whom, so far, opposed the invasion of Iraq (other than the president-elect). Having been anti-war is evidently a sign of inexperience and so a negative.

Add in the military line-up — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen, Centcom Commander David Petraeus, Generals Raymond Odierno and David McKiernan, the U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan — all second term Bush picks, all reportedly ready to push for a major “surge” in Afghanistan, all evidently against Obama’s timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq.

Now, mind you, so far we’ve only been considering the foreign policy issues of empire that face the next team. Domestically, if Gates remains, the Air Force might get kneecapped (perhaps losing the F-22 Raptor, the weapons system it wants for a war that will never be fought), but the Army and Marines will expand, as (so he promises) will the Navy. The essence of the matter is simple enough, as Frida Berrigan, arms expert for the New America Foundation and TomDispatch regular, indicates in her latest piece, “Weapons Come Second”: Even in the toughest of economic times, the Pentagon, bloated budget and all, is likely to prove relatively untouchable.

The Obama transition team’s explanation for the remarkably familiar look to its emerging national security line-up, suggested David E. Sanger in a recent front-page think piece in the New York Times, is “that the new administration will have no time for a learning curve. With the country facing a deep recession or worse, global market turmoil, chaos in Pakistan and a worsening war in Afghanistan, ‘there’s going to be no time for experimentation,’ a member of the Obama foreign policy team said.” In other words, we need the sort of minds, already imprisoned in Washington’s version of “experience,” who helped lead us into this mess (long term), to get us out of it. “Experimentation” is obviously for times when it isn’t needed. For these custodians of empire, Better a steady hand and the same-old thoughts. No?

By Tom Engelhardt

Reprinted with permission from The New Republic.