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06.24.10

Can the 'Team of Rivals' Survive?

Among Gen. McChrystal’s biggest backers, before all hell broke loose, was Hillary Clinton. Reihan Salam on the tensions on Obama’s national security team—and the Secretary of State’s next move.

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal returns to civilian life, the White House seems to have turned a potential political disaster into a triumph. By naming Gen. David Petraeus as McChrystal’s successor, the president has silenced critics on the right and left, if only briefly. This is the kind of deft political maneuver the president’s allies have been dying to see for months. What we don’t know, however, is how the decision played within President Obama’s “team of rivals.”

After a hard-fought nomination battle in 2008, many believed that bitterness between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would endure. The conflict between them encapsulated the divisions that had plagued Democrats throughout the Bush years. Clinton represented a continuation of her husband’s canny mix of centrism and populism, which often alienated liberal stalwarts. Obama, in contrast, drew on the energy of anti-war Democrats who had supported Howard Dean, and who had fueled the growth of online organizing in their efforts to shape a new future for the country.

Clinton strongly endorsed McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, providing a counterweight to a sharply critical Vice President Joe Biden.

To Obama’s great credit, his magnanimous decision to name Clinton as his secretary of state ended what could have been a political blood feud, one that might have led to a tragic televised duel between Chelsea Clinton and Malia Obama. Many invoked Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a paean to President Abraham Lincoln’s decision to include a number of his fiercest critics in his wartime cabinet. Given candidate Obama’s oft-professed admiration for Lincoln, there was an elegant symmetry to his decision to include Clinton in an inner circle that already included Biden, who also ran, briefly and without much success, for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the McChrystal imbroglio is that the general and his staff—prone to making puerile remarks—held Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in very high esteem. And as Josh Rogin, a reporter for Foreign Policy magazine, observed on Wednesday, Clinton remained “conspicuously silent” during the controversy. Rogin explains that there are perfectly reasonable explanations for this, among them the fact that McChrystal answers to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Yet Rogin also speculated that Clinton might have been preparing to defend McChrystal during a White House Afghanistan strategy meeting. What we do know, and what cheered McChrystal’s staffers, is that Clinton strongly endorsed McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, providing a counterweight to a sharply critical Vice President Joe Biden.

The notion that Clinton is an ardent hawk has been around for years. In a definitive article published in 2007, Michael Crowley of The New Republic traced her hawkishness to the success—in political if not strategic terms—of the 1999 Kosovo intervention, when NATO air strikes successfully compelled Serbian forces to abandon their armed campaign against Kosovar insurgents. After the 9/11 terror attacks, Clinton, as the junior senator from New York and the heir to her husband’s political legacy, was among the Senate Democrats most adamant about backing President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Though Clinton was certainly critical of the Bush administration, her public pronouncements strongly implied that she saw Iraq’s Baathist regime as a dire threat to regional security that needed to be dealt with through the use of force. And as the Iraq war declined in popularity, Clinton was extremely reluctant to concede that she had made an error in judgment in voting to authorize the use of military force. Eventually, she offered the lawyerly argument that voting to authorize force didn’t imply endorsing force itself, an argument that supporters of candidate Obama found unconvincing.

The fact that Clinton was given such a prominent role in the Obama cabinet suggested that the president was interested in vigorous debate within his cabinet. So far, despite dissatisfaction from hawkish conservatives, one gets the strong impression that the hawkish faction within the administration has been winning argument after argument. During the debate over the surge in Afghanistan, Clinton and Gates saw eye to eye, effectively marginalizing Biden and others who argued for a more limited approach. There are even rumors, in the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone article that set off this extraordinary tumult and elsewhere, that Clinton is interested in serving as Gates’s successor at the Pentagon, a role that would represent a dramatic boost in power and influence.

To suggest that President Obama’s national security strategy is being hashed out in an ongoing argument between Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden is to grossly oversimplify matters, not least because the president is a sophisticated strategic thinker with instincts of his own. Moreover, Clinton and Biden, and Gates and James L. Jones and other national security principals in the Obama administration, aren’t hawkish or dovish caricatures. The choices on the table, in Afghanistan as well in Iraq and Iran and North Korea, aren’t simply about “getting tough” or “getting friendly” in the abstract. All that said, it does seem that Hillary Clinton is more inclined to defer to military leadership, particularly when it counsels a more ambitious, more force-intensive approach. And so everyone with an interest in national security policy should keep a close eye on what happens if and when Defense Secretary Gates retires. If Clinton gains influence, it likely means that even with McChrystal himself gone, McChrystalism will be here to stay.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.