Real Change Is Afoot: Obama Shifts Political Center with National Security Selections

CHICAGO--As the season's first snow hit, Barack Obama on Monday took a shovel to the chilliest element of Bush administration national security policy: moral certitude. Rather than look to the heavens, a skillful president-elect seemed distinctly focused on the ground for inspiration.

With Sen. Hillary Clinton and six other new colleagues aligned in front of their very own American flags, Obama left little doubt that we're shifting the political center of gravity. For all Monday's talk of power, and successfully ending the "war on terror" in Afghanistan, the significance was less the obvious signals of being "muscular" than of an attempt to be flexible and, yes, multilateralist.

Historian Richard Norton Smith was perusing records of the late President Gerald Ford's administration out in California when I tracked him down. He agreed that Obama's talk about bipartisanship is a predictable, quadrennial ritual (there was speculation about a Democrat landing in the first Bush cabinet eight years ago) but also that Obama is exploiting an aura of being non-ideological as he also provides "a contrast with the portrait painted of an administration of cowboys."

And perhaps we should put aside the unceasing "team of rivals" gibberish and whether Obama and Clinton can get along (history shows that rivals were picked long before and after Honest Abe's presidency and, most of the time, it doesn't really work too well). As far at that goes, a superfluous press release from Bill Clinton, informing us that he fully supports Obama's choice for Secretary of State, suggested that it might be Madame Secretary's spouse, not her, that's ultimately the nettlesome one.

Just imagine if the new rules of the road, which bring significant financial disclosures by him, also mean diminished globetrotting. Will he succumb to the early symptoms of Persistent Oratorical Withdrawal, namely nightmares in which ballrooms are empty, your spokesman's cell phone rarely rings, or you're never called by Charlie Rose to discuss global challenges?

Bill's potential specter of irrelevance is at least better than the reality of Bush's actual irrelevance to many. Smith, the historian, also agreed that while Bush has shown signs of born-again pragmatism in recent years (a deal with North Korea, regrets over the stupid "Axis of Evil" line), few are listening. He's a tree falling in the forest with not a soul within miles. It's perhaps why they were probably breaking out their stockpile of airline liquor at the State Department as Obama talked about renewing American diplomacy.

Is it possible that with Obama, Hillary Clinton and holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we may actually wind up with more Foreign Service personnel than active members of U.S. military bands?!

And was former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, the skunk at the UN's (many) dinner parties, listening when Susan Rice, Obama's selection for his old job, talked about a need for "more effective international institutions" and the need to "rededicate ourselves to the United Nations"?

"Rice is the un-Bolton," said Smith.

But, our obsession with Hillary Clinton aside, the most telling pick may be Gates. Don't forget that our budget for the military is about 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. His operation is a whole lot bigger than hers.

So does the world know that Gates has recently said the following:

Over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory. Non-military efforts -- tools of persuasion and inspiration -- were indispensable to the outcome of the defining struggle of the 20th century. They are just as indispensable in the 21st century -- and perhaps even more so.

Pulling off successful non-military efforts is arduous. It's about a lot more than cultivating a nice image and having people like us. It's dealing, in a constructive way, with real threats, as the Bush administration itself is trying to do now in Djibouti. There, our military is actually building clinics, digging wells, inoculating cattle and offering seemingly helpful services to a population of horrendously poor rural Muslims in Africa -- the very same folks who are handy recruits for Al Qaeda.

James Glassman, a former journalist now serving as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy (the job previously held by Bush chum Karen Hughes), recently gave a speech a few blocks away from Obama's Monday personnel announcements. He talked about the need to show other societies, like Pakistan, why it's just not in their interest to harbor bad guys, or why it's not bright for their citizens to view violence as a prime means to achieve political, social and other aims.

Glassman cited figures from a Pew Global Attitude Survey in which 25 percent of Jordanians think that suicide bombing is sometimes justified. There were other statistics of that sort. More importantly, the Obama once again heard Monday would surely concur with the call for "soft" power in the speech by Glassman, whose area of the State Department is an underfunded backwater.

At the end Monday, Obama was once again asked a few questions, including a sharp one by ABC News' Jake Tapper about policy toward India and Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai horror. No surprise, Obama punted since he must walk a line between exuding competence and not coming off as precipitous since Bush is still boss.

But it shouldn't be a surprise that real change is afoot. The nattering to Obama's political left aside, it's probably wrong to assume too much tactical and strategic continuity, even given all the serious and experienced Washington veterans being picked by him.

Peel back the onion and one finds substantive differences with the guy whom nobody seems to be listening to. It's why John Bolton may be cringing, knock on wood.