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Foreign Policy Brain Trusts: Obama's Advisers

Author: Joanna Klonsky, Associate Editor
Updated: November 11, 2008

Editor's note

This Backgrounder has not been updated since the Nov. 4, 2008 election of Barack Obama as president. Some of the officials profiled have been nominated to cabinet or other top posts in the new administration.

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Introduction

Sen. Barack Obama's (D-IL) foreign policy agenda has emphasized multilateralism and reinvigorated diplomacy to advance U.S. interests. He has pledged to take steps to end the war in Iraq soon after taking office, to negotiate with the leadership of U.S. adversaries like Iran and Cuba, and to revamp the U.S. approach to free trade to bolster labor and environmental protections. Obama has attracted as advisers a number of top foreign policy experts who served under President Bill Clinton. Many of Obama's top advisers were opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, although a number of prominent Democrats, including Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), supported the action at the time. Obama's advisers generally appear to agree with his belief that it is "important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies."

A New Foreign Policy Vision

Obama was elected to the Senate in 2005 and serves on the Foreign Relations Committee. Prior to that, his professional experience was primarily confined to Illinois, where he served as a state legislator representing a Chicago district, and before that, a community activist. He has cited his personal background—his Kenyan-born father and a youth spent in Indonesia—as crucial to the development of his world view (AFP). Like other presidential campaigns, Obama's draws on a long list of advisers on foreign policy matters. The New York Times reported in July 2008 that the list swelled to more than three hundred experts after Sen. Clinton suspended her candidacy and some chief advisers joined Obama's team.

The Obama campaign says its most senior advisers include several ranking Clinton administration officials, the Brookings Institution's Susan E. Rice, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

"This is a team that's very reflective of Obama, who has made it pretty clear in his speeches and statements during the campaign that he believes that diplomacy has been undervalued over the past few years and that the United States shouldn't fear to negotiate," says Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security who advised John Edwards' presidential campaign.

If Obama wins the general election in November, his foreign policy and economic agendas will surely break with the legacies of the Bush administration, experts say. "Whether it's our approach to torture, or climate change, or how we're dealing with Iran, to Iraq, to the Middle East peace process you're going to see significant changes," says Chollet, who is not connected to the Obama campaign. Obama advocates a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions, and has said the United States should invest $150 billion over ten years to advance clean-energy technology. Obama has also been an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, which he opposed from its outset in 2002. He has said he will withdraw troops from Iraq and refocus U.S. military efforts against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

National Security Advisers

Obama has stressed his commitment to winning the battle against Taliban forces in Afghanistan. He has also vowed that he would pursue al-Qaeda elements into Pakistan, with or without government permission, if he had strong intelligence the group was planning an attack on the United States.

Obama's leading national security advisers include:

Denis McDonough, recently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, is the national security coordinator for Obama's campaign. McDonough was foreign policy adviser to former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

“Whether it’s our approach to torture, or climate change, or how we’re dealing with Iran, to Iraq, to the Middle East peace process you’re going to see significant changes,” - Derek Chollet, Center for a New American Security.

McDonough has been outspoken on energy and environmental policy. In June 2007, McDonough urged the Group of Eight (G8) to take action to combat climate change, and warned that current levels of development assistance are "woefully insufficient" to help underdeveloped nations deal with climate change. McDonough has also said that the United States should do more to "promote the development of our domestic clean energy sector industry." McDonough said on a Brookings Institution panel in May 2007 that it is "far past time" for the United States to institute a cap-and-trade system mandating "very aggressive reductions" (PDF) in greenhouse gases, with the goal of an 80 percent reduction over 1990 levels by 2050.

McDonough told a March 2008 Brookings Institution panel that the United States should "set a clear deadline" for troop withdrawal from Iraq in order to reduce the federal budget deficit and help solve the current economic crisis. He also said setting a deadline would send a message to the Iraqi leadership about the urgency of political reconciliation (PDF).

Richard Danzig, who until recently was the Sam Nunn Prize fellow in international security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is also a consultant to the Department of Defense on bioterrorism. Danzig was Navy secretary in the Clinton administration.

In a 2007 Armed Forces Journal roundtable, Danzig said U.S. grand security strategy should "aim to keep us and our allies free to pursue our interests and values, to reduce the amount of armed conflict in the world and to protect our citizens as much as possible (both at home and abroad) from the conflict that exists." He said U.S. defense strategy should not "over-design [sic] our military on the premise that a particular scenario, type of conflict or type of unit is the be-all and end-all."

In his role as bioweapons consultant to the Pentagon, Danzig has warned against several possible scenarios involving terrorist use of biological warfare. In 2004, Danzig said it was becoming increasingly likely that a terrorist group could create biological weapons. "It seems likely that, over a period between a few months and a few years, broadly skilled individuals equipped with modest laboratory equipment can develop biological weapons," Danzig told the Washington Post. "Only a thin wall of terrorist ignorance and inexperience now protects us."

Jonathan Scott Gration, a retired two-star general in the Air Force, is CEO of Millennium Villages, a project based on the UN Millennium Development Goals aimed at lifting African villages out of poverty. Gration speaks Swahili and spent much of his childhood in Congo.

He was director of strategy, policy, and assessments for the United States European Command in Germany. A veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, Gration also served as Commander of Task Force West during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq before retiring. He now supports Obama's proposal to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, although he told the New York Sun in August 2007, "if it's very clear that the al-Maliki government is making significant progress, that we're turning the tide, it would be crazy not to readjust" that plan. Gration noted that he was not commenting on behalf of the Obama campaign in that instance.

Gration has expressed support for Obama's stated willingness to hunt al-Qaeda operatives into Pakistan. "The United States has to be willing to pursue these terrorists to where they're planning their logistics operations," Gration told Newsweek in August 2007.

Sam Nunn, a former Georgia senator, has led efforts to reduce the global threat posed by nuclear weapons. Nunn is cochair and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization dedicated to lessening the threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. With Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-IN), Nunn introduced the 1991 legislation that led to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR). The CTR, which was initially intended to assist the former Soviet Union in dismantling its nuclear program, has since expanded to reducing the threat from all weapons of mass destruction.

For eight of his twenty-four years in the Senate, Nunn served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Nunn voted against the authorization of the first Gulf War in 1991. He has also been critical of the Bush administration's "war on terror." In 2006, Nunn said North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon proved the United States "started at the wrong end of the 'axis of evil'" (NYT).

Nunn opposed President Clinton's proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military (UPI) and supported the "don't ask, don't tell" military policy toward homosexuality. In 2008, however, Nunn said it would be "appropriate to take another look" at that policy.

William J. Perry is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor at Stanford University. From 1994 to 1997, Perry served as President Bill Clinton's secretary of defense. Under Perry's leadership, the United States sent military forces into Haiti in 1994 with the goal of pressuring that country's military junta into reinstating deposed president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Perry also oversaw U.S. military action in Bosnia beginning in 1994. Perry has advocated a national security policy of "preventive defense" and directs the Preventive Defense Project out of Harvard and Stanford Universities.

A critic of the current war in Iraq, Perry served as a member of the Iraq Study Group, which published a report offering seventy-nine proposals for improving the situation in Iraq in 2006. In a 2006 interview with NPR, Perry said there "is no military solution in Iraq." At the time, he called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by early 2008.

A proponent of nuclear disarmament, Perry dealt extensively with U.S.-North Korea relations as defense secretary and has been critical of the Bush administration's policy toward North Korea. In a May 2008 Washington Post op-ed, Perry recommended that the Bush administration focus on "limiting North Korea's nuclear capabilities by concluding the elimination of plutonium production."

Sarah Sewall is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Sewall was deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance during the Clinton administration.

Sewall collaborated with Gen. David Petraeus to rewrite the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency field guide. In a Washington Post op-ed, Sewall said the guide stressed the need for counterinsurgent forces to integrate into the population, "assuming more physical risk to soldiers." She also said humanitarian assistance and construction projects are "critical to the fight."  Sewall also criticized the Bush "surge" strategy as having "too few capable U.S., allied and Iraqi counterinsurgent forces; weak U.S. efforts at promoting political and economic reform; and corrupt or feckless Iraqi institutions and leadership." In a Foreign Service Journal article in 2007, Sewall called for a national doctrine (PDF) that clearly delineates civilian and military responsibilities in nation building during a counterinsurgency campaign.

Foreign Policy Advisers

Obama's diverse group of foreign policy advisers includes former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, prominent lawyer and State Department veteran Gregory B. Craig, and Africa expert Susan E. Rice. All three held top positions in Bill Clinton's administration. Like Obama, his advisers are critical of the Bush foreign policy agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Darfur, and with respect to U.S.-Latin America relations, among others.

Obama's advisers are critical of the Bush foreign policy agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan, on Darfur, and with respect to U.S.-Latin America relations.

Anthony Lake was a national security adviser to President Clinton and is now a professor at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Lake served under President Clinton during several major foreign policy crises, including the conflicts in Bosnia and Somalia, among others. Lake advocated keeping a U.S. presence in Somalia even after many voices in the United States called for a withdrawal. In an interview with PBS' Frontline, Lake said, "I still believe that if we had immediately turned tail in Somalia, there would have been other similar tragedies around the world."

On the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, in 2006, Lake, with Susan Rice, urged the United States to "press for a UN resolution that issues Sudan an ultimatum: accept unconditional deployment of the UN force within one week or face military consequences." In a Washington Post op-ed, Lake and Rice argued that the United States could also intervene in Darfur without UN approval. "The United States acted without UN blessing in 1999 in Kosovo to confront a lesser humanitarian crisis (perhaps 10,000 killed) and a more formidable adversary," they wrote.

Lake, like Obama's other top advisers, is critical of the Iraq war. In a January 2007 Boston Globe op-ed, Lake wrote that the civilian leaders of the war effort have failed to understand that "you cannot fix another country's politics and resolve its internal fractures primarily through military means, coupled with floundering political, economic, and social programs that create as much dependency, corruption, and resentment as progress."

Lake has said the United States has a "fundamental strategic interest in NATO [North Alantic Treaty Organization] and an expanding NATO that can help bring stability farther and farther East in Europe."

Mark Lippert was Obama's senior foreign policy Senate staffer, and is now a top foreign policy adviser to the Democratic candidate's presidential campaign. Lippert, who returned from a tour of duty as an intelligence officer for the Navy SEALS in Iraq last spring, is reported to be one of Obama's closest day-to-day advisers on international affairs.* Lippert "has had a hand in every major Obama speech and statement on international affairs and deals with the senator daily," according to Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Lynn Sweet.  Prior to joining Obama's Senate staff, he worked for the Senate Appropriations Committee Foreign Operations Subcommittee and for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. Lippert also served as an aide (Reuters) to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

*Note: Clarifies original text, which said Lippert was a Navy SEAL.

Susan E. Rice, a Brookings Institution senior fellow for foreign policy, global economy, and development, served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the later years of the Clinton administration.

Rice has been a critic of the war in Iraq and she said in September 2007 that the troop surge is not achieving "its intended and stated objective of giving the Iraqi political factions the space that is necessary to resolve their political differences."

Rice has also advocated a tougher U.S. response to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. In 2007, Rice published a position paper (PDF) calling for more stringent economic sanctions on Sudan and for Congress to authorize the use of force to end the crisis, among other recommendations. In 2005, Rice urged the United States and international groups like NATO and the African Union to "embrace an emerging international norm that recognizes the ‘responsibility to protect' innocent civilians facing death on a mass scale and whose governments cannot or will not protect them."

Rice also categorizes global poverty as a factor in U.S. national security. In 2006, Rice warned in The National Interest that poverty "dramatically increases the risk of civil conflict" (PDF) and "prevents poor countries from devoting sufficient resources to detect and contain deadly disease." Rice has repeatedly said the Bush administration should devote up to 0.7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, a target set as part of the UN's Millenium Development Project, to overseas development assistance by 2015.

Gregory B. Craig, a former Clinton White House aide, served as director of policy planning under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Craig is a partner at the Washington-based Williams & Connolly law firm. Among his most prominent cases was the defense of President Clinton against his impeachment. From 1984 to 1988, Craig served as senior adviser on defense, foreign policy, and national security issues for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA).

In March 2008, Craig criticized the Bush administration for "taking sides" in various Latin American elections. As a result, he said, the United States has become increasingly unpopular in the region. He also criticized President Bush for abandoning former President Clinton's strategy to work with Latin America "as a whole, rather than to try to take advantage of U.S. negotiating leverage and deal with the region on its trade considerations in bits and pieces." Above all, Craig faulted the Bush administration for having "ignored" Latin America.

Madeleine K. Albright served as secretary of state under President Clinton, and, before that, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Among the most notable foreign policy challenges during Albright's tenure were the war in Kosovo, the containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea, and efforts to broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. The case of Kosovo typified her support of a kind of muscular diplomacy to advance U.S. and humanitarian interests.

In a 2003 Foreign Affairs article, Albright called the Bush administration's stated claims for going to war with Iraq "poorly supported." However, she noted she "personally felt the war was justified" because of Iraq's decade-long refusal to comply with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction. Overall, she believes the United States has lost its moral authority (Reuters) under the Bush administration and the challenge of the next president is in part to "restore the goodness of American power."

Albright has been a strong backer of democracy promotion, helping to found the Community of Democracies, an organization of like-minded states, in her final years in office. She has been cochair for CFR Independent Task Forces on threats to democracy and supporting Arab democracy.

Economic Advisers

In turbulent economic times, Obama has promoted an agenda including tax relief for the middle class, "fair trade" policies that protect workers' rights and the environment, and creation of new jobs in the energy sector. The following are his chief aides on international economic matters:

Jason Furman, a senior fellow for economics at the Brookings Institution, became economic policy director for the Obama campaign in June 2008. Furman served as special assistant to the president for economic policy in the Clinton administration and was a staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers. He has also been a senior economic adviser to the chief economist at the World Bank, and the director of economic policy for Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. Furman formerly directed the Hamilton Project, an economic policy shop housed within Brookings that is advised by former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, with whom Furman is often associated.

Furman has been critical of the Bush administration's trade policies, saying in 2004 that President Bush has pushed for free trade agreements "with economically insignificant countries that move us backward on labor and environmental standards and don't address the problems of dislocated American workers" (ChiTrib).

In 2007, Furman told the New York Times that he believes "the best thing we can do for free trade is focus on strengthening domestic policies that strengthen social insurance." To this end, he said, the United States should have laws guaranteeing the unemployed with health insurance and granting U.S. workers wage insurance that would pay out if they are laid off and have to work for lower pay. Furman has written extensively about tax policy, fiscal policy and health care reform. Furman calls universal health care an "economic imperative" (PDF).

William M. Daley served as chairman of President Bill Clinton's NAFTA Task Force.  A few years after the enactment of the trade agreement, Daley became Clinton's secretary of commerce.

Daley remains a believer in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), even though Obama has criticized it extensively and has pledged to renegotiate the deal if elected. Daley has said he has "a difference of opinion" with Obama on NAFTA. He also warned against making promises about NAFTA that would be difficult to keep. "Saying to the Mexicans, if he were to win the presidency, 'Now, I've got a political problem here. Can we work this out?' That won't work," Daley said to the Chicago Tribune.

As commerce secretary, Daley praised the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and its $60 million equity fund investment in Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan as demonstrating "the commitment of the United States to furthering the cause of peace in the region."

In 2000, Daley served as campaign chairman for the unsuccessful presidential run of former Vice President Al Gore. Daley now heads J.P. Morgan Chase's office of corporate social responsibility, where he has said he will try "to reduce our own emissions while upgrading our systems to make us more environmentally friendly" (Crain's Chicago Business).

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, is a senior research fellow at the American Bar Association and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Goolsbee is a free trade advocate who has criticized the Bush administration for failing to enforce the rules of existing trade agreements and for not bringing enough cases before the World Trade Organization.

Goolsbee made headlines in March 2008 over his meeting with the Canadian Consulate General in Chicago to discuss Obama's critical stance toward NAFTA. Initial reports said Goolsbee assured Canadian officials that Obama did not really intend to renegotiate NAFTA, as he has often claimed on the campaign trail. The Obama campaign denied these reports.

In an April 2007 policy report from the Progressive Policy Institute, Goolsbee said the Bush administration's tax cuts for the wealthy have failed as policy  (PDF). Eliminating those tax cuts, along with federal spending reductions, "will more than pay for everything Senator Obama has proposed," Goolsbee told the New York Times in April 2008.

Goolsbee has also said that foreign ownership of U.S. debt " raises the potential threat to America's geopolitical position." Like Obama, Goolsbee has expressed particular concern about U.S. debt with China (Reuters).

Setting a deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq would send a message to the Iraqi leadership about the urgency of political reconciliation - Denis McDonough, Obama’s national security adviser.

Daniel K. Tarullo is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches international economic regulation, international law, and banking law. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. In the Clinton administration, Tarullo served as assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs, deputy assistant to the president for economic policy, and assistant to the president for international economic policy.

Tarullo has criticized the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which Obama also opposed, as "badly flawed," and has said the agreement has done "relatively little to affect the region's development challenges and to spread the gains from trade more broadly."

Selected Readings

Barack Obama, "Renewing American Leadership," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007.

Madeleine K. Albright, "A Realistic Idealism," Washington Post, May 8, 2006.

Madeleine K. Albright and Vin Weber, cochairs. In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2005).

Austan Goolsbee, "How the U.S. Has Kept the Productivity Playing Field Tilted to its Advantage" (PDF), New York Times, June 21, 2007.

Austan Goolsbee, "A Country Less Dependent on Oil is Free to Make Other New Year's Resolutions" (PDF), New York Times, January 4, 2007.

Denis McDonough and Peter Ogden, "Cleaning up China: Opportunities Beckon for U.S. Businesses," Center for American Progress, January 30, 2007.

Susan E. Rice, "Dithering on Darfur: U.S. Inaction in the Face of Genocide" (PDF), testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 11, 2007.

Susan E. Rice and Andrew J. Loomis, "The Evolution of Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect" (PDF), in Beyond Preemption: Force and Legitimacy in a Changing World, ed. Ivo H. Daalder, 59-95 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2007).

William J. Perry et al, "Toward a Nuclear Free World," Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008.

Sarah Sewall, "Modernizing U.S. Counterinsurgency Practice: Rethinking Risk and Developing a National Strategy" (PDF), Military Review, September-October 2006.

Daniel K. Tarullo, "A Sensible Approach to Labor Standards to Ensure Free Trade" (PDF), Center for American Progress, March 2007.

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