The composition of US President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team remains up in the air. With the US economy continuing to wheeze, putting together an Obama economic team is now the top priority.
The other key variable in deciding who runs the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon is strangely George W. Bush’s present secretary of defence, Bob Gates.
Gates, who was seconded to Bush by the latter’s father, took over the Pentagon to undo the damage to his son’s presidency by Donald Rumsfeld. Helped by the successful Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy of General David Petraeus, Gates has developed the reputation for having a golden touch with intractable problems.
Obama is reported to have asked Gates to stay on for six months to a year.
This has posed a problem for the Democrats. The frontrunner for the position of Secretary of State is moderate Republican Senator Richard Lugar, a strong supporter of the Indo-US nuclear deal who recently declared the US could not “change the world” without India’s help.
However, as one senior Obama advisor said, “There is a lot of opposition to having two Republicans in the cabinet.”
One problem is Obama has no obvious Democratic candidate for secretary of state. Hillary Clinton’s choice for that slot, Richard Holbrooke, angered Obama’s team during the campaign by his “aggressive partisanship” and is out of the running.
Senator John Kerry is lobbying hard for the post but the Obama team sees him as “loopy” and doubt his managerial ability. The person Obama most trusts on foreign policy is his vice-president, Joe Biden. Some lawyers have actually checked to see whether constitutionally Biden can hold both jobs. Answer: he can.
A few Obama advisors and Washington lobbyists, all of whom insisted on anonymity, said there is another possibility. Obama may simply argue he doesn’t mind two Republicans, especially if its for six months.
Biden would be pleased with this equation. He wants to play a key role in foreign policy and has an excellent equation with Lugar, Hagel and, to a lesser extent, Kerry. With one of his senatorial buddies in Foggy Bottom, US foreign policy could be run by a duumvirate of vice-president and secretary of state.
There is even more uncertainty about the national security advisor. Three names are making the rounds: Anthony Lake, Susan Rice and Jim Steinberg. Lake, an opponent of the nuclear deal within the Obama camp, is seen as the weakest contender.
“Ultimately, no one knows who is going to get what except Obama and maybe his wife, Michelle,” said a lobbyist.