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Lionel Beehner Headshot

Obama's Uninspiring National Security Team

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Pardon the metaphor, but Obama is trying to put lipstick on the pig that is US foreign policy. His national security team looks no less hawkish than the team assembled during Bush's second term. If I may ask, how is Hillary Clinton signing a communiqué or Robert Gates asking for more defense funding a "new dawn" exactly?

Ah, but the buck stops not with them but with Obama. The 3am call is his, not Clinton's, to make (even though one can almost hear her rehearsing Alexander Haig's famous "I'm in charge now" line in her head). Still, Obama's familiar-looking team of national security fixer-uppers does not inspire confidence. Nor do his vague answers to detailed questions on specific policies. "We're going to have to bring the full force of our power, not only military but also diplomatic, economic and political, to deal with those threats not only to keep America safe, but also to ensure that peace and prosperity will exist around the world," he told reporters. Obama seems to think he can wish away the world's evils with his eloquence and charm.

But his statements to date, whenever issues of substance are involved, have been lacking in specifics -- the kind of fluff that goes good with peanut butter but not with issues of war and peace. To wit: He says he will close Guantanamo. Great, a symbolic blow to terrorism recruiters' kneecaps, but what about Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which is even larger (with over 1,000 detainees), more secretive, and even houses juveniles? Obama promises to send more troops to Afghanistan but to what end: What are our goals there? And more troops will do nothing to improve the aid-distribution mess there or rid Kabul of corruption.

On terrorism in South Asia, he is similarly opaque. I am getting calls from Indian reporters asking if their country should be allowed to bomb terrorist targets in Pakistan. Their rationale? Obama seems to back the idea. OK, that's fine and well when the targets are FARC rebels in Ecuador or PKK militants in Iraqi Kurdistan. But India and Pakistan are both nuclear states. I am curious what Obama would advise his Indian counterpart in the wake of the recent attacks. Just saying there is "delicate diplomacy" going on falls short of an answer. How do you strong-arm Pakistan to control militants on its territory, short of bombing them (which incidentally is what Bush is currently doing to little avail)?

Let's shift to Europe. Obama has made no decision on the missile shield in Moscow's backyard, rammed down the throats of the Russians by the Bushies when there wasn't a threat. Now there actually may be one because Moscow has installed missiles in Kaliningrad, which juts into Europe like an extended middle finger. Obama seems to support NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, even as evidence has emerged that Kiev may have supplied Tbilisi with illegal arms during its war with Moscow.

On the Middle East, his staff (including Clinton) has strong pro-Israel credentials, which is not a bad thing but it may jeopardize Washington's efforts to be seen as an honest peace broker in the region, much less scotch any "vigorous debate" in the White House when the subject of Israel arises (at least he has brought back into the fold some advisers, including Robert Malley and Samantha Power, whose views might sit better in Arab capitals).

I hate to say it, but in terms of U.S. foreign policy, I don't see a whole lot changing under Obama, especially with the national security team he has assembled. The biggest thing I fear is that when Obama gets that 3am phone call, his voice will sound an awful lot like Bush's.