It was hard to miss the message that Barack Obama was sending with the powerful tableau lined up behind him onstage in Chicago. “I assembled this team because I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions,” the President-elect said of his national-security picks. The top three members of that team certainly fit the description. In Hillary Clinton, Obama is getting a Secretary of State who battled him to the bitter end of a Democratic primary season focused largely on the question of who was better equipped to be Commander in Chief. In bringing in retired Marine general James Jones as his National Security Adviser and retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama is turning to two men who might have seemed more obvious choices had John McCain won the White House. And all three were on the opposite side from Obama on the defining foreign policy decision of the past decade: whether to invade Iraq.
What Obama calls strength might sound like a formula for contentiousness or even failure, especially when you consider what happened with George W. Bush’s first foreign policy team, which had its share of big personalities too. So fraught with palace intrigue was that arrangement that then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld refused to attend key meetings called by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Secretary of State Colin Powell, for all his star power, was all but frozen out of the real decision-making—and the foreign leaders he visited knew it. And Vice President Dick Cheney was a power center unto himself. “You look at the team that George W. Bush brought in, and they also were very talented and experienced people,” says Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It turned into a disaster because the President did a very poor job managing his staff and couldn’t resolve disputes among his people.” (See pictures of Barack Obama on election night.)