01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's New Power Troika Faces Crises Old and New

President-elect Barack Obama introduced his national security leadership team on Monday.

Well, so much for the notion, constantly bruited about by the fantasists of the far right, that Barack Obama was the most radical major presidential candidate in history. If his top economic management team hadn't disabused them of that nonsense, his national security leadership surely does.

Does this mean that Obama was a closet center-rightist, as some of the unintentional comedians performing on Fox News, not recognizing the irony, now claim?

Or is Obama forging a new center in American politics with refugees from the failed Bush/Cheney era?

Of the six top appointees announced Monday, three were major Obama backers in the hard-fought primary campaign, and three were not. It's true that Susan Rice, the new UN ambassador-to be, and Eric Holder, the next attorney general, were Clinton Administration officials, but what that means is they were ambitious DC Democrats in the '90s. Both were stalwarts for Obama in his sometime brutal battle for the nomination with Hillary Clinton. So was Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who was appointed a U.S. attorney by Bill Clinton, and will be the next Homeland Security Secretary.

But the three who were not with Obama in the primaries were decidedly not with him in the primaries. And It happens that Obama's non-supporters in the primary campaign will be the troika at the center of geopolitical decision-making -- Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Advisor -- the traditional iron triangle of national security policy and decision-making.

It will be up to Holder and Napolitano to find ways to maintain internal security without countenancing torture and outrageous violations of privacy. It will be up to Rice to bring a newly engaged public diplomacy to the United Nations.

But it will be up to the trio that were nowhere near right from the start with Barack Obama to handle the emerging crisis springing from the terrorist siege of Mumbai, which I expected in this Huffington Post piece last week, along with other crises centering on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, and Russia.

Barack Obama had sharp disagreements on geopolitics with Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries.

Hillary Clinton was Obama's toughest opponent. Now she's his Secretary of State. Bob Gates and General James Jones were major appointees of George W. Bush, Gates as defense secretary, Jones as NATO commander.

Ironically, Gates and Jones have already been helping Obama for more than a year, though that was almost certainly not their intent. On Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

A little background. Gates is a lifelong intelligence man, the first career intelligence officer to serve as director of the CIA. He was Deputy Director of the CIA under Ronald Reagan, and CIA Director under the first President Bush. He was also a member of the Iraq Study Group (ISG).

The ISG was greatly reviled on the right-wing, and by many in the Bush/Cheney White House, when it issued its assessment of the Iraq War. Basically, it called for the situation to be stabilized, in part with a temporary military "surge," and for US engagement with Iran and Syria, all as preparation for a US withdrawal from Iraq.

The right-wing, and Bush and Cheney, denounced that as "surrender" just two years ago. It happens to be what we're doing now. Under Bush and Cheney.

Had President Obama cut the deal with the Iraqi government that this White House approved, the new president would be denounced as a Neville Chamberlain. All US troops out of their cities and on their bases by the middle of next year. No US operations unless approved by the Iraqi government. All US troops gone by the end of 2011.

This is an absolute defeat for the Bush/Cheney strategy. As there were no Iraqi WMDs, there was no strategic threat from Saddam Hussein to be removed. Iraq was not involved with 9/11, and Al Qaeda had virtually no presence in Iraq until we removed Saddam. Iran is stronger now in the region with Saddam gone, and will have great influence in the Iraqi government. The US doesn't even get bases in Iraq, probably the best reason for the war, given Iraq's strategic location on the Middle Eastern map.

It's a total reversal of Bush/Cheney policy, not to mention neoconservative doctrine, and Defense Secretary Bob Gates is making it happen. Just as called for in the reviled-on-the-right ISG report.

When it comes to the deeply troubled situation in Afghanistan, about which Obama has been talking for the past two years, Gates is already looking to shift resources there from Iraq. And he's looking at how realistic any military solution can be there.

But it was General Jones who sounded the alarm early last year. I remember talking with Joe Biden in February 2007 about the then emerging Afghanistan crisis, and he quickly cited Jones -- an old friend of the vice president-elect, whom he called America's best military commander -- for vehemently denying Bush/Cheney assertions that Afghanistan was going well. Jones, he said, called Afghanistan "a disaster."

While Gates is not leaving the Pentagon any time soon, he's not Obama's long-term defense secretary. It may well be that Jones, in what is frequently the geopolitical catbird seat as Obama's National Security Advisor, will emerge as the most influential figure of the new national security power troika.

General James Jones, former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander, on the crisis in Afghanistan.

As a retired four-star Marine general and decorated Vietnam War hero, Jones can solve many potential problems for a president with a seemingly exotic name and background who never served in the military. Obama made a show of honoring Jones's Marine heritage, and the military heritage of his family, citing Tarawa, one of the Marines' most famous battles.

In addition to the macho Marine stuff, Jones spent much of his youth living abroad, in Paris actually, speaking fluent French, and graduated from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, where he also played on the basketball team. So he and Obama have more in common than it first appears.

Any top general or admiral has to have political skills, and Jones ran the Marines as commandant of the Marine Corps, giving him a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was reportedly in line to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but after he served as Reagan's national security advisor -- but demurred due to his dislike of then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Instead, he became the first Marine to command NATO, America's military alliance with European nations, giving him much more high-level operational experience with military and governmental leaders than anyone other than Gates.

He works well with Gates, is friendly with Hillary Clinton, and, unlike either of them, will be right there in the White House with President Obama. When that 3 AM phone call comes, Jones will be right there.

They'll have their hands full getting out of Iraq, without further empowering Iran, and in trying to salvage the situation in Afghanistan.

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai may trigger the destabilization of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

They may also be dealing with a new crisis stemming from the terrorist siege of Mumbai. All indications are that the attackers were Islamic jihadists, with most if not all from Pakistan. What's not entirely clear yet is precisely who is behind it, though it's not unlikely that elements, hopefully rogue, of Pakistani intelligence were involved.

In addition to destablizing the faint rapprochement between Pakistan and India, the attacks also destabilize the shaky governments in both countries. Which could in turn further destabilize Afghanistan, as US strategy there depends on help from neighboring Pakistan.

The new Pakistani government has been trying to rein in the army and the ISI intelligence service. But with very limited success. This may cause the government to try harder, which could lead to counter-moves by the military. And it's not clear how hard the Pakistanis can push against the Islamic jihadists -- in the form of Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre -- that are using their country for a safe haven.

Obama has been aggressive as a candidate about taking the fight to Al Qaeda in Pakistan. We'll see how that flies in the post-Mumbai environment. That could lead to a new government in the world's only Islamic nuclear power.

Clinton criticized Obama for his aggressiveness on Pakistan during the campaign. Will her caution win out?

Two other areas of potential disagreement center on Iran and Russia. Clinton has flashed hawkish colors on Iran, at one point guaranteeing massive retaliation for any attack on Israel, which would constitute a startling new doctrine. Will Obama agree with that?

The Pentagon under Gates has actually been more dovish on Iran. During Gates' tenure as defense secretary, the constant saber-rattling from Washington on Iran clattered into silence. He and Jones may well believe that the US has no particularly useful military options against Iran, and that stirring up a hornets' nest would be a bad idea. Not to mention that the US needs Iran to help stabilize Iraq.

Irritated with America's policy of NATO expansion to its borders, Russia is making moves in Latin America.

And what about Russia? While Bush and Cheney followed their delusional strategy in the Middle East, Russia has re-emerged as a great power. Angry about the longtime US strategy of expanding NATO to the Russian border, Russia, on the theory that turnabout is fair play, is now playing around in America's backyard. At Vladimir Putin's direction, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev met with several Latin American heads of state, and forged a deeper alliance on energy and military matters with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. A Russian naval squadron is cruising the Caribbean, and one of its ships is going to sail through the Panama Canal.

It was actually President Bill Clinton who pursued the NATO expansion strategy which so aggravates Moscow. (Though it was Bush and Cheney who devised the missile shield project in Poland and the Czech Republic that infuriates Russia.)

Obama made obligatory hawkish sounds when Russia smashed the Georgian military over the summer, though nowhere near as bellicose as John McCain and his "We are all Georgians now" line.

Does Hillary Clinton still support her husband's strategy of NATO expansion? Or is she willing to let Russia have its unchallenged sphere of influence, just as Washington prefers in this hemisphere?

It may be that former NATO Commander Jones will counsel Obama to let NATO kill its own further expansion in Russia's "near abroad." Georgia doesn't look like a very good NATO candidate today, and Ukraine has very tangled internal politics.

Obama hasn't said much about the missile shield, which is ostensibly -- and amusingly, looking at the map -- aimed at countering Iran. If NATO expansion and the missile shield go by the boards, Russia could be helpful to the US with Afghanistan, as it very much was after 9/11, and Iran.

Or Russia, whose government is sliding from democracy to autocracy, could become more of a geopolitical competitor to the US.

These are some of the questions that Obama, who also has to manage the worst financial and economic crisis in decades, will have to work out with Jones, Gates, and Clinton.