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Obama seeks balanced foreign team

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
Mrs Clinton is more hawkish on foreign policy than Mr Obama

President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy team under Hillary Clinton as secretary of state will reassure the more hawkish elements in the United States, but might disappoint those who wanted a more radical shift.

The aim will be to try to solve problems before they reach the stage when military action is considered.

The military and diplomatic punch will still be ready but it will be in a softer glove.

No pushover

President-elect Obama is preparing for a difficult balancing act.

He has chosen people prepared to use American power but who are not intent, as the neo-conservatives were under President Bush, on trying to change the world.

We will not hear talk from this team about a "new American century" as we did under Mr Bush. But nor should anyone expect Washington to be a pushover now.

The United States will continue to fight two open wars - in Iraq and Afghanistan - and a counter-terrorism effort worldwide against al-Qaeda.

It will be interesting to see if the phrase "war on terror" will be used by the new administration. But, whatever it is called, it will be prosecuted.

US soldiers in Afghanistan - 28/11/2008
Mr Obama has promised to send 10,000 more US troops to Afghanistan

So too will the war in Afghanistan, with reinforcements of more than 10,000 soldiers already promised.

There will also be another concerted push to emphasise development. Easier said than done.

As for Iraq, the hope is that the war and the US commitment there will end.

Keeping current Defence Secretary Robert Gates on the Obama team is evidently intended to maintain that ambition.

Mr Gates has emerged as a spokesman for the kind of smart diplomacy that Mr Obama talked about during his campaign.

The proposed National Security Adviser, General James Jones, a former Nato and Marine Corps commander, has also reportedly signed up to the new approach.

The Clinton factor

But it will be the new secretary of state herself, Hillary Clinton, on whom most eyes will properly be focused.

She is on the more hawkish side of the Democratic party. As a senator, she voted in favour of the resolution authorising war against Iraq, a vote she cast "with conviction," she said.

She is a staunch supporter of Israel and a fierce critic of Iran.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - 24/11/2008
Hillary Clinton has said no options remain off the table regarding Iran

"Israel's right to exist, and exist in safety and peace, must never be called into question," she has said.

"We should not, cannot, must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons." Iran has said that it does not intend to build or acquire nuclear weapons.

How far she will countenance the kind of direct diplomacy with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that her rival urged during the campaign remains to be seen.

She has said that no options must be taken off the table in dealing with Iran, but that was a reference to military force not diplomatic contact.

Relations with Russia may well continue to be difficult if she maintains her previous stance.

In 2005, with Senator John McCain, she nominated Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko for the Nobel Peace Prize.

President-elect Obama's philosophy of using more resources to prevent problems from becoming crises was summed up in an interview with the New York Times by Denis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser:

"This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem. During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also younger officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned.

"There wasn't a meeting that didn't include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats," Mr McDonough said.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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