Like a lot of people watching Obama at a distance, I was a bit dismayed at how establishment his big foreign policy picks have been (Hilary Clinton and Robert Gates). But as we’re seeing more and more names, it looks like there is a method to his seeming madness (as there almost always is with Obama). He’s letting the establishment names remain as figureheads but he’s putting his own people in secondary positions at State or the United Nations (Samatha Power, Susan Rice, maybe Jim Steinberg). These are all people loyal to Obama. In effect, the establishment will continue to be the face of policy but the actual makers of policy will be Obama’s people.
In some ways, Obama is doing exactly what Cheney did in late 2000 and early 2001 (when he was in charge of staffing the Bush administration): Cheney co-opted familiar big names (Colin Powell, Paul O’Neill) but he made sure that all the secondary people were neo-cons loyal to the vice-president. In sum, the strategy seems to be to let the generals keep their ribbons, as long as the lieutenants belong to the President.
To be fair, I should mention that some journalistic friends in Washington who are close to the ground have expressed skepticism about this theory. They think Clinton and Gates are strong personalities who will run their departments. Still, it’s an iron law of bureacracy that a commander is always the prisoner of his or her staff. And it seems that Obama will be picking the staff.
As the saying goes, if you want to figure out what Napoleon was up to, look at the lieutenants, not the generals.
In watching Obama over the last few years it’s hard to ignore the fact that he has a modus operendi: he always thinks far ahead, he tends to co-opt the opposition, and he understands how the system works. When trying to figure out what he’s up to, it’s always safe to assume that he’s smarter than you are and he’s thinking ahead.
On a related note, see Laura McGann’s article on how Obama is staffing the White House