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Obama's strong-willed national security team

His picks have differed with him -- and each other -- on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and more.

November 30, 2008|Paul Richter | Richter is a writer in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to lead an administration where strong-willed senior officials are ready to argue forcefully for differing points of view.

It appears that in two months, he'll get his wish, and then some.

Obama's new national security team is led by three veteran officials who have differed with each other -- and with the president-elect -- on the full menu of security issues, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and Arab-Israel conflict.

The president-elect is expected on Monday to begin introducing a team that includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom he has chosen as secretary of State; retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr., tapped to be the new national security advisor; and Robert M. Gates, who has agreed to stay on as Defense secretary.

Their collaboration isn't likely to be as contentious as the first-term Bush administration battles between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Vice President Dick Cheney. Clinton, Gates and Jones have worked smoothly, with the only visible clashes coming between Clinton and Gates' deputies over Iraq.

But Obama will have some clear choices among their views, which differ in nuance in some cases and more starkly in others. Obama appears to be determined to keep them in line; advisors say he believes the Pentagon has become too strong in the Bush years, and he wants to reassert White House control.

Some American supporters of Israel have already been buzzing over the potential for conflict between Clinton and Jones on Arab-Israeli issues.

Jones, an admired former Marine commandant and supreme allied commander of NATO, was appointed last November as a Bush administration envoy charged with trying to improve the often dysfunctional Palestinian security forces. As part of that assignment, he drafted a report that caused a stir in Israel by criticizing the Israeli Defense Forces' activities in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the report, which was never released publicly, "makes Israel look very bad."

Jones also reportedly favored the temporary deployment of a NATO-led international force in the territories -- a position the Israeli government would probably oppose as a potential interference to its right of self defense.

Clinton is generally viewed as holding center-right views on Israeli security issues. Although some liberal, pro-Israel activists insist she leans toward those on the dovish side of the dispute, she declared during the primary campaign that the United States could "totally obliterate" Iran if it used a nuclear weapon against Israel.

Jones has separated himself from the Obama playbook on a few issues. In 2007, he warned that setting an arbitrary deadline for removing U.S. troops from Iraq, which would presumably include Obama's campaign call to remove combat units in 16 months, would be "against our national interest."

In other areas, Jones is more in harmony with Obama. He has agreed with the president-elect that the focus on Iraq has distracted from a needed emphasis on Afghanistan.

Clinton hammered Obama during the campaign, saying he exposed his inexperience by calling for high-level talks with Tehran and advocating unilateral U.S. action in Pakistan.

But their differences have narrowed since their rivalry ended, and they now hold similar positions on many issues.

Gates, on the other hand, has indicated significant differences with Obama and with Clinton. He is a believer in missile defense, while Obama has said he favors it only if it proves technically feasible.

Many experts on Russia believe that the Obama administration will slow the deployment of a proposed missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland as a means of easing tensions with Moscow.

Although Gates is admired by the Obama team, they differ on nuclear weapons policy, an issue important to the Obama faithful. Gates has endorsed the development of a new generation of nuclear weapon called the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Proponents of nuclear disarmament, including close Obama advisors, believe the U.S. does not need a new warhead.

Still, there has been speculation that Obama's team could accede to Gates' position to reach a more important goal -- Senate passage of the long-stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an international agreement prohibiting new testing of nuclear weapons. Some centrists argue that accepting the warhead program may be a compromise needed to win over military leaders, nuclear labs and other influential players. Gates has suggested that a replacement warhead could be developed without testing.

On other issues, Gates has not supported Obama's 16-month Iraq troop drawdown plan, and has publicly urged U.S. leaders to brace for a commitment that could last years. Still, Gates has differed from the Bush administration on Iraq troop policy.

Gates' approach to the war in Afghanistan has come under fire from Obama's team, which complains it has relied too heavily on air attacks that result in civilian casualties.

Like Obama, Gates has been eager to engage countries such as Russia. But Gates has been skeptical about diplomatic approaches to Iran.

Gates frequently recounts his experience as a member of the high-level U.S. team that tried to negotiate with Iran after the 1979 revolution. The talks broke down, leading to seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, persuading Gates that hopes of engaging reasonable Iranians might be an illusion.

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paul.richter@latimes.com.

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.

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