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Interpreting Obama's Cabinet Picks


And now, for some analysis with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, let's pick up where Don left off and talk about Robert Gates over at the Pentagon and James Jones as national security adviser. What did these two men - their appointment - what does that say to the rest of the world about President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy priorities?

RON ELVING: It tells the rest of the world and it tells Americans as well that his primary concern is for continuity, and that he wants to have the security that comes out of the Bush years without some of the policies of the Bush years that he believes have actually reduced our national security, and that, of course, includes the war in Iraq.

BRAND: And James Jones, I think, has been especially critical that we - he has been quoted as saying we took our eye off the ball and that the real action we need to focus on is in Afghanistan.

ELVING: There have always been people at the highest levels of the American military establishment, uniform and civilian, who have felt that the emphasis on Iraq starting in the first Bush term was in error, and that we should have stayed focused on Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and some of our relationship with Pakistan.

And I think a lot of the events of just the last few days and certainly the last several years have borne out that point of view, and it has now risen to power in the person of James Jones to be the national security adviser.

BRAND: And does he share the same philosophy with Senator Clinton?

ELVING: I think Senator Clinton is prepared to carry forward into her service as secretary of state the change of heart that she underwent in the last several years regarding the war in Iraq. She was for it in the first place. She saw it as necessary in the wake of 9/11. She was, after all, the senator from New York, and she was, I think, in fairness, we can say, anticipating running for president at some future date against a Republican who would try to make her seem relatively a lightweight on national security.

She has seen it all in a different light, of course, and in running for president in 2008, while she did not ever say she had made a mistake, and she never really repudiated her vote for the war, she did make it clear that she had changed her mind about it. So, I think that she is in harmony with the general thinking of the other members of the national security and foreign policy team here, including, of course, the president-elect himself.

BRAND: Although the president-elect did say that there would be disagreements when it came to how to approach his foreign policy objectives, he doesn't seem to be shying away from that. Where are some of those disagreements?

ELVING: There could be disagreements with respect to how we deal with foreign leaders who are particularly of a mind to give the United States fits, let us say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, for example, other foreign leaders perhaps who might emerge in Pakistan or might emerge in other countries who are not in power there now, possibly also including Iraq.

Barack Obama has said, we should sit down, and we should talk to those people without the kind of preconditions that the Bush administration set, which were essentially, you must dismantle your own policies that we object to before we will negotiate with you. That could be a point of disagreement because Hillary Clinton in the past has belittled that as either naive or as being misguided.

BRAND: Yeah. I was just going to ask you about that. Has she come around and will she now follow the president-elect's goals in that arena?

ELVING: Whether she has come around to his point of view entirely or not, she will follow his goals in that area because that will be her job. There's a great potential here with Joe Biden as vice president and with the strong personality of Hillary Clinton and some of these other personalities who are involved, there is the possibility that there will be a great deal of clash.

And you heard in the press conference Barack Obama addressing that issue and saying that he didn't bring them together to be an echo chamber, that they were not intended to be groupthink, to use his word. But in the end, it will be - the test will be whether the president has the strength of personality and will to impose his own view on his team whatever their rivalrous or whatever their disagreeing points of view.

BRAND: And I assume there won't any big road bumps to Hillary Clinton's confirmation in the Senate, right?

ELVING: Nothing that would really prevent her from being confirmed and overwhelmingly confirmed. I think where she might actually get a little more flack is not from the Republicans, but from some of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I'm thinking of Russell Feingold here, possibly Jim Webb, the senator from Virginia. These are people who have opposed the war from the very beginning and who have not been shy about pointing out that they were against the war right from the beginning. And they might want to have a little session with her to see how she may have changed her thinking about it.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
Ron Elving
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for