The Band Plays On

by Editorial

The flood of “How-to” documents includes, for example, a set of Congress-mandated proposals for reforming the National Security Council. The work of an ad hoc committee of ex-ambassadors and security advisers, among themobamapage36_1 Brent Scowcroft (advisor to George Bush Sr.) and former Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering, this is an important report that sets forth a structure for a key component of the presidency that doesn’t actually have one: today, the NSC takes whatever shape successive presidents want to give it.


President George W. Bush with Sen. Barack Obama during the latter’s post-election visit to the Oval Office. (Photo by White House photographer Eric Draper)

The Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings combined forces to prepare an expert report on the situation in the Middle East, and how to fix it. The Center for Governmental Studies and Indiana University have collected and delivered to Obama’s transition team policy studies from 20 think-tanks (readers can review them at

It’s anybody’s guess how many of these ideas will end up in the new administration’s agenda, but the range of the CGS/Indiana ideas package, for example, is breath-taking, and includes such titles as “Women and U.S. Foreign Assistance,” “Time for a U.S.-Iranian ‘Grand Bargain,’” and “(Economic) Do’s and Don’ts for the Next U.S. President.”

Much has been said about the hundreds of thousands of small donors who filled the Obama campaign’s war chest. But it’s not the $25 to $50 contributors who will move into the ambassadorial posts. A transition source says the team has been receiving the usual calls from, or on behalf of, major contributors discreetly dropping hints that they would be available for nomination as ambassadors.

All heads of mission send in their resignation at the end of an administration, and few are confirmed in their post by the new one. After every election, career foreign service officers watch resentfully as the prestigious embassies – London, Paris, Rome – are handed out as prizes to major campaign contributors while the top diplomatic professionals have to scramble for the embassy in Djibouti like urchins fighting over leftovers in a Dickensian orphanage. It’s not as though business executives, politicians, and retired generals have distinguished themselves representing the U.S. abroad over the years. Some have, of course, but it’s the embarrassing misfits who are remembered. So far, there’s no indication that the Obama administration is inclined to alter the process. But Hillary Clinton is known to favor wider use of senior career diplomats in key posts, so a surprise may be in store.

Every president brings with him the flavor of home, and the already noticeable influx of cars with Illinois license plates in the streets of Washington is testimony that Obama is no different. (For the past eight years it was cowboy boots worn with tuxedos.) But then, judging from the familiar names and faces in the incoming administration, Obama’s “Change Inc.” is not a matter of new faces, but of new ideas and spirit, and a new approach to what in Washington had become usual and mundane. As the President-elect put it at one of his recent press conferences, yes, these are not unknown names, but that’s not the nature of the change, “The change is me.”

The reality is that while Obama was elected for a four-year term, he doesn’t have four years to show how the campaign rhetoric of change will work in practice. He has created huge expectations both in the United States as well as outside it. He has stated, rightly, that dealing with the economic crisis is his first priority as soon as he sets foot in the White House. But,crises don’t wait in an orderly line to receive attention, they jostle each other dangerously. As Peter Baker observed in the New York Times, “No president since Barack Obama was born has ascended to the Oval Office confronted by the accumulation of seismic challenges awaiting him.”

On March 3, Obama must turn his attention to NATO when he attends its 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg. The alliance’s controversial and so far unsuccessful role in Afghanistan will be at the top of the agenda. Before that, however, he must find $30 billion to fund the Iraq war. The Bush administration funded the conflict until January, and thoughtfully left him the burden of finding money for the new fiscal year.
By December 2009, he has to decide whether the U.S. should follow Europe in setting a target for reduced CO2 emissions and sign the treaty that will follow the Kyoto Protocol – something the Bush administration has always resisted.

Further down the line are a long list of promises he’s made to just about everyone to spend more on health care, education, universal insurance for children, on roads, bridges, and power plants. The trick for Barack Obama is to sustain the excitement and sense of regeneration created by his election, as he tackles the enormous burden he inherits from his chaotic predecessor.

E.J. Dionne, the thoughtful Washington Post columnist, said that by voting for Obama the country “put a definitive end to a conservative era” rooted in the myth that Americans were divided by “a moral conflict pitting ‘the real America’ against some pale imitation.” But the new sense of coming together, strengthened by Obama’s post-election meeting with his Republican rival, John McCain, and Obama’s appointment of party rival Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, bemuses foreign observers. This is a new twist to realpolitik.

Following the economic summit in Washington on November 15, the French newspaper Le Monde, complained that Americans seemed less interested in the 20 world leaders gathered to solve the global financial crisis than in reports about Obama’s negotiations with Hillary Clinton, and other key appointees. What they may not fully appreciate is that, for once, in Washington at least, the old French adage, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they remain the same), doesn’t necessarily apply.

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