By Tapping Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, Obama Sends Reassuring Signal to Military

Many members of the president-elect's new national security team have long ties to the U.S. military.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks after being introduced by President-elect Barack Obama as his nominee for Secretary of State as James L. Jones, Obama's national security advisor listens in Chicago, Illiniois.

Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks after being introduced by President-elect Barack Obama as his nominee for Secretary of State.

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In selecting Sen. Hillary Clinton and others to lead his national security team, President-elect Barack Obama appears to have concluded that tapping advisers with a reputation for moderate pragmatism and close ties to the military will help him wind down the war in Iraq, ratchet up U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and bolster the nonmilitary dimensions of U.S. foreign policy.

"To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power," Obama said during his announcement in Chicago.

In the wake of the election, Obama may have found a good fit in Clinton's broad international experience, reputation for toughness, and carefully cultivated links to leading military officers as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She has championed improved benefits and healthcare for soldiers, particularly highlighting the shortcomings of care for wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the same time, she has taken a moderately hawkish stance on key security issues, especially the war on terrorism. Senior military officers are said to consider her one of the most receptive ears on defense matters on Capitol Hill.

Named by Obama to be secretary of state, Clinton joins a very experienced team that might not always agree but should comfort many in the military. Robert Gates, President Bush's current defense secretary, will be kept on in that post. And former Gen. James Jones, a career Marine Corps officer who served as the allied military commander in Europe and later as a Middle East peace envoy, was picked to head the White House-based National Security Council. Both Gates and Jones are known more as national security professionals than as partisan policy players.

Obama also announced that his campaign's top foreign policy adviser, former State Department diplomat Susan Rice, would be nominated to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Clinton, 61, was the president-elect's principal opponent in the Democratic primaries, and during their political rivalry she criticized Obama as inexperienced in foreign affairs while presenting herself as a tough defender of U.S. interests. Their actual differences, however, were magnified during the heat of a close-fought campaign.

Obama made opposition to the Iraq war a centerpiece of his foreign policy appeal and called for a 16-month timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Clinton had voted in 2002 to authorize military action but then criticized the Bush administration approach to post-invasion Iraq. Though reluctant to set a schedule on American withdrawal, she made clear that she too saw the need to move beyond what has seemed an open-ended involvement in an insurgent war. In a Foreign Affairs article, she wrote, "Ending the war in Iraq is the first step toward restoring the United States' global leadership."

Clinton has also supported a stronger focus on defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan—an Obama priority. And though she counted herself a skeptic on Obama's emphasis on direct diplomacy with nations like Iran, Syria, and North Korea, handing her the diplomatic portfolio is likely to give such efforts sturdier political cover on Capitol Hill and with conservative circles elsewhere.

A Clinton State Department is likely to grow not only more prominent but also larger. Obama has been urging greater funding for diplomacy and foreign aid. And Gates is expected to play a supportive role for new diplomatic efforts run out of State. Some of his predecessors often functioned as bureaucratic rivals of the chief diplomat. Gates has even called for infusing State with more money and attention. To have the broad support of the defense chief upfront could be a key plus for Clinton as the incoming administration settles in next year.

Said Obama on Monday, "Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."

  • Read more about Obama's transition.