Barack Obama Has Team to Do the Job

Barack Obama's national security team has the talent and prestige to steer the United States through a turbulent global situation, but it will be the financial crisis and not the war in Iraq that will be its true test.

That is the view of Walter Russel Mead, senior fellow in US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

He says President-elect Obama's selection of Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state is a "fascinating" addition to a team already boasting the foreign policy clout of Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and the strong reputation and record of the continuing Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates.

Some analysts say Mr Obama's selections could signal a more hawkish approach to foreign policy than he had promised during his campaign, particularly with the decision to keep Mr Gates in his position.

Whether this interpretation is correct or not, it certainly appears that Mr Obama is moving to honour his pledge to set up a bipartisan administration.

"That I think is a very good appointment [Dr Gates]," Mr Russel Mead told ABC2 News Breakfast today.

"A lot of people in the US, even people who've been very strong critics of Bush, have thought that when Gates took over the Pentagon from Rumsfeld, he really restored a kind of confidence in the operation of the Pentagon.

"He's well respected outside and in Congress, he's really a strong choice."

As well as moving to lessen the impacts of divisions between his own party and the Republicans, Mr Obama has also extended a significant olive branch to those Democrats who supported Senator Clinton in the presidential campaign.

She takes her substantial experience and profile to the position of secretary of state, but her appointment could bring her into conflict with Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, whose foreign policy credentials were emphasised during the election campaign.

"He'd already appointed Joe Biden as Vice-President, who's a pretty seasoned pro as well," Mr Russel Mead said.

"In some ways I think this may reduce Biden's influence because he's no longer the senior person on the foreign policy team. It may be that Obama is doing a bit of divide and rule here."

'No dramatic differences'
Speaking of division, much has been made of the potential conflict between Senator Clinton and Mr Obama after a long and often malicious presidential campaign in which each attacked the other's foreign policy credentials.

Mr Obama played down those differences yesterday, saying they had been exaggerated during the campaign. Mr Russel Mead agrees.

"I don't think there were dramatic differences between the two candidates Obama and Clinton," he said.

"The argument was, in some degree, should you have voted for the Iraq war in 2002/2003? That's a very old discussion.

"In terms of what to do now in Iraq there's actually very broad consensus in the United States, which is get out as quick as you can but not in such a way that we risk destabilising what has been achieved. Both candidates needed to exaggerate small differences to appeal to voters in the election but I think, in fact, there was a consensus between the two and that remains."

Mr Russel Mead says Senator Clinton's high profile will assist her in her new role as secretary of state.

"One thing that will definitely happen is when Hillary Clinton goes to visit a country there's no risk that she will be ignored, it will be an enormous event," he said.

"The whole country will turn out, everyone will want to know what's happening and, in terms of your diplomacy, that's a tremendous asset that you really command the kind of attention that she can do."

Financial front
Former president Bill Clinton was in charge for eight years and did not officially take his country to war, and Mr Russel Mead says there is every chance of his wife doing the same as secretary of state.

People in the United States are in no mood to enter another war, he says, and the major international battle to be waged is to salvage the international financial system.

"I think they're going to have to deal with this global financial crisis, that's front and centre," he said.

"We need to get some sense of what the bottom is so we can move and unfreeze the credit system.

"Things right now are not at their worst, we seem to have turned a corner, and let's hope that it lasts. But immediately beyond that we have the problem that demand is depressed throughout the economy, the recession has already begun and the new president is going to have to get the economy moving again."

Mr Russel Mead sees the potential downturn in China as possibly the most pressing foreign issue on the horizon.

"We should not underestimate the potential of something like that to create problems in China and more broadly in Asia and even potentially between China and the West," he said.

"Already we see China has begun to lower its currency after a lot of countries had spent a lot of time trying to convince it to raise it and increase the value of its currency.

"We have some real problems and that's going to have to be the first task and they haven't been thinking about it until a few months ago. They're going to have to invent a new agenda."

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