Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Emerging players in Obama's national security team

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When the phone rings at 3 a.m. in the White House during a crisis, President Barack Obama won't lack for advice. But the question may be whose advice will be the loudest?

Sen. Hillary Clinton is on track to be secretary of state, according to sources.

Sen. Hillary Clinton is on track to be secretary of state, according to sources.

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Obama's potential national security team looks like an all-star lineup: Sen. Hillary Clinton is on track, sources say, to be secretary of state; Defense Secretary Robert Gates may stay on; and retired Gen. Jim Jones is a leading candidate for national security adviser.

And according to The New York Times, retired Adm. Dennis Blair may be named as director of national intelligence. He did a tour of duty at the CIA, and his expertise is clandestine military operations.

Observers may wonder if so much high-power talent can get along.

"Are there downsides? Sure. When you have people with this much stature, there can be ego clashes," said CNN contributor David Gergen. "Everybody's ego has got to get into the same room ... and in at least one or two of those cases, I'm sure people think that their egos are big enough to fill the room all by themselves."

Clinton has applauded Gates' candor but early on put him on notice.

"We need a strong secretary of defense -- but that doesn't mean strong-headed," Clinton said during Gates' confirmation hearings in 2006. Video Watch the debate over Clinton's foreign policy experience »

And Gates?

"One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win," Gates said in a speech at Kansas State University in 2007.

Gates urgently needs the State Department to contribute billions of dollars in aid for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has even reached out to Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Friday, Obama held a private, closed-door meeting in Chicago, Illinois, with Mullen for 45 minutes, according to a U.S. military official with direct knowledge of the talks.

The meeting was a "get-acquainted session," the official said.

The meeting comes as Mullen is reviewing a formal "request for forces" from commanders in the field for 15,000 to 20,000 additional troops to send to Afghanistan during the opening months of the Obama administration. It also comes as the president-elect has made statements about his desire to find terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. Video Watch as Obama looks to assemble a national security dream team »

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Obama spoke to him by phone Saturday and assured him that the United States would send more aid and pay more attention to his war-torn country, according to Karzai's office.

Obama aides declined to confirm that the call included specific promises.

But the real power broker in the national security transition may be Jones, a retired Marine Corps four-star general. A former Middle East adviser, Jones is known as a strong commander.

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As national security adviser, he would have to make sure the president not only gets the best advice -- but that the team plays together nicely.

"There's nobody stronger than a four-star Marine general, and he would be able to take this team of rivals and play the role of integrating everybody together," said CNN contributor Paul Begala.
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