A Crash Course for Obama

Admiral (ret.) John Michael "Mike" Mike McConnell is the U.S. president's top intelligence officer - the director of National Intelligence. He was in Israel last week on a working visit. On the morning of January 21, 2009, the day after the 44th president of the United States is sworn in. McConnell will enter the president's office carrying two copies of the PDB, the "President's daily briefing," a top-secret document for very few eyes, and will discuss with the new president the most burning of highly classified issues.

At the conclusion of the briefing, McConnell, who is not expected to keep his post for long in the new administration, and the president will page through a mountain of documents from the Pentagon. Among these will be Conplan 7500, the Concept of Operations Plan against "violent extremist organizations," a collective term for Islamic terror organizations; there will also be a plan of action against Iran. We just don't know if the new president will be John Sidney McCain or Barack Hussein Obama.

Obama had made it to the final round of the most fateful game in the world, to a duel with the Republican candidate. Much has been written about his road from Honolulu to Indonesia, Chicago and Washington, but he is still a mystery. It's unclear whether he himself can envision just how he would act if elected. Over the coming months, foreign ministries, intelligence communities, major corporations and myriad analysts around the world will be desperately trying to predict his future performance.

It's a tough assignment, because Obama is a novice in two important areas. One is security and foreign affairs, the other is running a national administration. Previous rookies in world affairs - Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - brought with them to the White House a certain amount of administrative experience as former governors. Up to now, Obama has been an eloquent speaker, but without much to show in the way of accomplishments. This may be a boon for the election, but not in running a government.

Obama is more comfortable in the economic and social arenas. On foreign affairs and security, he knows he's in an inferior position. For months, he's been getting a crash course in these areas, so he can rebuff the criticism of the Republican candidate, John McCain. The results were evident in Obama's speech last week at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention, where he qualified, under the guise of "clarification," previous statements. It was a retreat. Yes, he is still in favor of a meeting with Iran's leaders, but only at the suitable levels and at a place and time of his choosing. He favors a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but it must be gradual. He prefers diplomatic and economic pressure, but says the military option should also be left on the table.

In short, the Democratic candidate has shifted toward the center: This isn't the naive Obama of the early part of the election campaign, but McCain, Jr. Both candidates agree that a "change" is needed, i.e., something other than the present situation that's associated with Bush. What sort of change, in which direction, is a matter of disagreement.

McCain is giving Obama a hard time for having thought that beefing up American forces in Iraq would lead to failure, as well as for not frequently visiting the combat arenas. More troubling for Obama is that his ambition to determine the course of events is largely out of his hands. It will depend more on the actions of adversaries (Iran, Al-Qaida) and perhaps of friends, too (Israel, if it quickly takes action against Iran). His room for maneuver is limited: A major terror attack on an American target in September or October would feed the skepticism about his ability to wage war on fundamentalist terror.

Who will be team?

The questions waiting for an answer from Obama are who, what, when, how and where. Who will be the major players on his team - his vice president, secretary of state, secretary of defense, White House bureau chief, national security adviser, director of national intelligence, ambassador to the United Nations? Obama has to show that his team, unlike him, is experienced in foreign affairs and security and can compensate for his weak points. Bush applied this strategy eight years ago, when he selected the former secretary of defense, Richard Cheney, as his running mate and promised the post of secretary of state to Colin Powell, Washington's hero in the 1991 Gulf War.

Obama's personnel problem ties in with his conflict with the Clintons. Usually, the leadership of a party that's coming back in from the cold is made up of alumni of the lower ranks, who have matured in the intervening four (or eight) years. Deputy secretaries like Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance and Warren Christopher become cabinet members.

This time around, the Democrats' stable is stocked primarily with veterans of the Clinton administration, but the resentments of recent months are liable to make Obama reluctant to appoint them.

Obama, who did not serve in the military - another point that leaves him open to jabs from McCain - is in serious need of endorsements from retired senior officers, when so many of their colleagues have been lining up behind McCain, the former fighter pilot, prisoner of war and retired colonel. Democrats have won support only from a few retired generals, including commanders of divisions in Iraq whose frustration hastened their discharges. This ought to boost the chances of Wesley Clark, who was commander of NATO forces until 2000 and a friend of former Israeli military men (such as Ehud Barak and Giora Rom) of being promised a senior diplomatic or security post by Obama.

Once the "who" is decided - a protracted process because cabinet members and other senior appointments are first subject to hearings and approval by the Senate, and this also delays the appointments of subordinates. The "how" must also be clarified: how the administration shall be run, particularly in terms of centralization in the White House versus decentralization to the cabinet members. Obama is still an enigma as far as this is concerned. Perhaps he himself cannot say how this will go.

The questions of when, where and what Obama will want to do in his foreign policy and defense policy are intertwined. His declarations prior to the elections do not necessarily foreshadow how he would actually proceed as president, or months after that, when the new administration reaches the end of its grace period. Even if he greatly desires to shift the weight of American policy from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to friendly cooperation on other continents, he may well be swept up by the turn of events, as happened to Bush after September 11, 2001.

Like it or not, Obama will inherit the Iranian treat, Al-Qaida and all the rest. This is an important, non-political chapter in his education. Military leaders, including the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen (who is due to visit Israel soon, for the second time in the last six months), and General David Petraeus, who is slated to take over as commander of forces in the Iran-Iraq-Afghanistan arena, have been taking every public opportunity to warn the next president that the way out of the Middle East will be long and tricky. These comments are really directed at Obama; McCain already shares their view.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as intelligence leaders, have been pushing the same message in speeches, lectures and articles: The war in the Middle East, in its various and overlapping arenas, will continue for years to come - perhaps as much as a generation, perhaps longer. Dialogue with the present leadership in Tehran is an illusion. The military will certainly salute and obey the commander-in-chief - the president of the United States - but the threats will not allow for a sharp shift in policy.

Best to expect continuity

This is also the message being given to the world: It's best to expect continuity. The central current in American foreign policy and defense policy is neither Republican nor Democrat. The differences between Ford and Carter were not significant. Disregarding details and style, the differences between Reagan and the first President Bush were not all that great, nor were the differences between the latter and Clinton, or between Clinton and the current President Bush.

A rift within the party during the primaries is a recipe for failure in the general election: This lesson was learned by serving presidents, like Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980, among others. If Obama is elected, it may mean one big step for the American nation, but just a tiny shift in its foreign policy.