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A cast of 300 advises Obama on foreign policy

Barack Obama’s huge foreign policy team, organized like a mini State Department, is on the spot this week as the senator plans his overseas trip.
Image: Barack Obama meets with a foreign policy panel of former US officials in Washington
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Il., left, meets with two of his foreign policy advisers, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, center, and former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry, right, in Washington in June.Jim Bourg / Reuters
/ Source: The New York Times

Every day around 8 a.m., foreign policy aides at Senator Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters send him two e-mails: a briefing on major world developments over the previous 24 hours and a set of questions, accompanied by suggested answers, that the candidate is likely to be asked about international relations during the day.

One recent Q. & A. asked, for example, whether Mr. Obama supported the decision by Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to include a timetable for American troop withdrawal in any new security agreements with the United States. The answer, provided to Mr. Obama with bullet points, was yes — or “a genuine opportunity,” as he put it in a speech on Iraq this week.

Behind the e-mail messages is a tight-knit group of aides supported by a huge 300-person foreign policy campaign bureaucracy, organized like a mini State Department, to assist a candidate whose limited national security experience remains a concern to many voters.

“It is unwieldy, no question,” said Denis McDonough, 38, Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy aide, speaking of an infrastructure that has been divided into 20 teams based on regions and issues, and that has recently absorbed, with some tensions, the top foreign policy advisers from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign. “But an administration is unwieldy, too. We also know that it’s messier when you don’t get as much information as you can.”

The group is on the spot this week as Mr. Obama is planning to make his first overseas foray as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with voters at home and leaders abroad watching closely to see how he handles himself on the global stage.

Unlike , who entered the presidential race in 2000 with scant exposure to national security issues, Mr. Obama has served since his election to the Senate in 2004 on the Foreign Relations Committee and has had a running tutorial from aides steeped in the issues. His campaign says that he is well prepared and that he often alters and expands on the talking points provided to him by his foreign policy advisers.

Most of the core members of his team served in government during President ’s administration and by and large were junior to the advisers who worked on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. But they remain in charge within the campaign even as it takes on more senior figures from the Clinton era, like two former secretaries of state, and , and are positioned to put their own stamp on the party’s foreign policy.

Most of them, like the candidate they are working for, distinguished themselves from Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy camp by early opposition to the Iraq war. They also tend to be more liberal and to emphasize using the “soft power” of diplomacy and economic aid to try to advance the interests of the United States. Still, their positions fall well within centrist Democratic foreign policy thinking, and none of the deep policy fissures that have divided the Republicans into two camps, the neoconservatives and the so-called pragmatists, have opened.

Mr. Obama’s core team is led by Susan E. Rice, an assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, who has pushed for a tougher response to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, and , Mr. Clinton’s first national security adviser, who was criticized for the administration’s failure to confront the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and now acknowledges the inaction as a major mistake.

The core group also includes Gregory B. Craig, a former top official in the Clinton State Department who served as the president’s lawyer during his impeachment trial; , a secretary in the Clinton administration; Mark W. Lippert, Mr. Obama’s former Senate foreign policy adviser, who just returned from a Navy tour of duty in Iraq; and Mr. McDonough.

Mr. McDonough and Mr. Lippert are paid by the campaign and based in Chicago, and the rest are outside advisers who volunteer their time from Washington.

The group no longer includes Samantha Power, the -winning Harvard human rights expert who resigned in March after she was quoted calling Mrs. Clinton a “monster.” But Mr. Lake still talks to Ms. Power, and Mr. Obama sent a long personal tribute that was read at her wedding in Ireland this month.

Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator of Arizona, has a far smaller and looser foreign policy advisory operation, about 75 people in all, and none are organized into teams. In 2004, the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator , had a foreign policy structure similar in scale to Mr. Obama’s, but it had limited influence on the candidate, who had spent 20 years in the Senate, former advisers said. Mr. Obama is not yet receiving the government intelligence briefing that is typically made available to a presidential candidate upon becoming his party’s nominee.

Mr. Obama’s infrastructure funnels hundreds of e-mail messages and reams of position papers and talking points each day to members of the core group, who in turn seek advice or make requests for more information to team members down the line. , the Middle East envoy for Mr. Clinton and the first President Bush and a member of the Obama campaign’s Middle East team, is frequently asked by Ms. Rice, Mr. Lake or Mr. McDonough for help on framing Mr. Obama’s comments on Iran’s nuclear program and its potential threat to Israel.

“They’ve asked for substantive help: ‘Can I take a look at language on Iran?’ ” Mr. Ross said. “Or sometimes I’ve been asked questions to explain the administration’s approach on Iran.” Mr. Ross participated in a conference call last week with Mr. Obama and other advisers to prepare for the senator’s foreign trip, and he will travel with Mr. Obama in Israel and the West Bank city of Ramallah and at other stops. Mr. Ross described Mr. Obama in the conference call as focused on “drilling down” into the issues on the trip.

Another person who has contributed outside advice is former Secretary of State , whom Mr. Obama has been wooing. Mr. Powell, a Republican, has a friendship of decades with Mr. McCain, but friends say he has felt excluded from Mr. McCain’s foreign policy operation and was impressed when Mr. Obama called on him in June. Mr. Powell also met around the same time with Mr. McCain.

From day to day, the main point of contact with Mr. Obama and his foreign policy team is Mr. McDonough, who is soon to be joined in Chicago by Mr. Lippert. “If there’s something big in the morning, we will either e-mail or call Obama,” said Mr. Lippert, who performed a similar job, although on a smaller scale, when he was Mr. Obama’s foreign policy adviser in the Senate. “So instead of having 20 people at your fingertips, you have 300. The pressure is there, the time is much shorter, but the principle is the same — lining up the calls, briefing the candidate, e-mails, op-eds, statements.”

Out in the netherworld of the 300, advisers often say they are unclear about what happens to all the policy paragraphs they churn out on request. “It’s all mysterious what we send him and what gets to him,” said Michael A. McFaul, a Russia scholar at who leads the Russia and Eurasia team for the Obama campaign.

Other team leaders include , a scholar at the who has organized his 40-member nuclear nonproliferation team into eight working groups, and Philip H. Gordon, another scholar at the institution, who is in charge of Mr. Obama’s Europe team.

Although Mr. Obama’s team has yet to show any public evidence of deep policy divisions, it has its share of personal tensions, not least those born of integrating Mrs. Clinton’s former advisers into the effort. In that process, the old Clinton administration hierarchy has been turned upside down.

One person who is not a team leader — and who was not included in a 13-member “senior working group” that the Obama campaign announced last month — is , a ambassador under Mr. Clinton who was mentioned as a potential secretary of state if Mrs. Clinton had won the presidency. Mr. Holbrooke has long had a rivalry with Mr. Lake, who was widely criticized in Washington for his performance as national security adviser in the Clinton White House.

The Obama campaign has since said that Mr. Holbrooke, who mediated an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995, is on the team. But Mr. Holbrooke, who declined to comment, has found himself in the position of a general from a defeated army who must now seek peace.

This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.