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Paul Greenberg / Dec. 4, 2008

Hope Rises

Looking over Barack Obama’s first appointees to his Cabinet, I get this weird premonition: I could yet wind up leading the cheers for the Obama administration.

I know, it’s early yet. The president-elect is, after all, only president-elect, still a couple of months from Inauguration Day. But hope rises. It was buoyed when the next president introduced his Security Team, which used to be called a War Cabinet when the language was more direct. He spoke of his appointments to head the State and Defense departments as a New Beginning, borrowing a catch phrase from the Reagan Years. It doesn’t look very new – the faces flanking him last Monday were mighty familiar – but it’s a strong beginning. Consider:

As secretary of state, the country is to have a tough-minded woman with a long record of engagement in the political wars of her time, and the scars to show for it. Hillary Clinton’s appointment is one more sign that this young president isn’t afraid to pick top-level advisers with strong minds, and voices, of their own.

This is the same Hillary Clinton who challenged some of Sen. Obama’s airy foreign policy pronouncements during the vigorous race for their party’s presidential nomination, at one point questioning the wisdom of his rash promise to meet with Iran’s nutcase of a president without preconditions. The lady is very much in touch with reality, which is what a secretary of state needs to be.

Barack Obama himself seems to have learned a lot since the early days of his campaign; he has steadily backed away from his talk of an arbitrary deadline for pulling American troops out of Iraq. Once he’s inaugurated as president, the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces may yet bring himself to use the word “victory” in connection with the valor and accomplishments of those troops. For it is their success, and the vision of their commander – Gen. David Petraeus – that will allow the next president to shift his attention to other fronts in the war on terror, like Afghanistan, where things need to improve, too.

With the mantle of presidential responsibility settling on his shoulders, Barack Obama now talks about conferring with his generals before doing anything hasty in Iraq, which is a good idea. The trick, of course, will be to confer with the right ones or, if he can’t find another Petraeus, appoint one. Mr. Lincoln had to go through a whole series of commanders before he found his Grant.

The success of the Surge, and the formal agreement with the Iraqi government to hand over control of the war to the Iraqis themselves in orderly stages, opens the way for American forces to come home in honor rather than fleeing in haste, leaving a vivisected nation and a raging civil war behind. Which was Joe Biden’s “solution” to the challenge Iraq posed. But even he seems to have seen the folly of that course, or at least he never mentions it any more – and has removed all traces of it from his Web site. The man does have some shame after all.

The incoming president will inherit an increasingly free, stable and democratic Iraq when he comes into office. Saddam Hussein is gone and his aggressive dictatorship with him. He will not be around to challenge the next administration. American troops and our Iraqi allies stand on the verge of victory thanks – dare anyone say it? – to the utter determination of the president whom Barack Obama criticized so bitterly during the campaign.

It would be nice if the next secretary of state showed a little humility. Her confirmation hearing would be the perfect occasion for Hillary Clinton to apologize to Gen. Petraeus for her snide comment that it would take “a willing suspension of disbelief” to think his strategy would work in Iraq. As it did. Even more quickly than its supporters had hoped. The sight of an apology coming from Hillary Clinton might shock, but it would clear the air. And really be a new beginning.

Ms. Clinton will be bringing a lot of baggage to her new job, most of it named Bill. But the word is that Mr. Clinton has agreed to separate his own suspect web of international deals from his spouse’s new responsibilities by coming clean about all those mysterious contributions to his foundation. And taking a number of other steps to avoid conflicts of interest for his spouse. He’s to start acting with the kind of circumspection a former president should exercise. We’ll see.

Another familiar – and assuring – face on the Obama team will be Robert Gates, the current secretary of defense who continues to oversee the rebuilding of the country’s armed forces from its Rumsfeldian low. Mr. Gates, too, objected to any arbitrary deadline for leaving/abandoning Iraq when that idea was all the rage. It will be good to have his steady hand still on the tiller, at least for a while.

Some policies in Washington don’t need a new beginning so much as a good follow-through, and Secretary Gates has earned the respect of all who have watched him restore the morale and reinvigorate the mission of the country’s armed forces.

The foreign policy and defense team the president-elect now has announced, like the economic team he announced the week before, assures. He’s coming down from the clouds to solid ground.

For now I’m not going to think about which teacher union-approved educantist Barack Obama might name as his secretary of education, the better to hasten the continuing deterioration of the country’s public schools – the kind of schools the Obamas would never choose for their own children.

But enough of that. Why spoil a good day? Let us instead pray for our next president’s continued success and good health, especially when remembering who his vice president is to be.

© 2008 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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