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Sweet column: Inside look at Obama's foreign policy team

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The inner circle of foreign policy experts advising Sen. Barack Obama is small but influential. If he is elected president, his secretary of state and national security advisers may come from this group.


Obama joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he entered the Senate in January 2004, and from this perch he has gotten to know world leaders and international affairs experts.

For Obama's presidential bid, Senate staffer Mark Lippert is the critical link between the campaign, the Senate staff and the senator. Lippert has accompanied Obama on the three international trips Obama has taken while in office. Lippert, who has a master's from Stanford in international policy, has had a hand in every major Obama speech and statement on international affairs and deals with the senator daily.

Lippert, a lieutenant junior grade in the Navy Reserve, came to Obama after working on the Senate Appropriations Committee Foreign Operations Subcommittee for five years and has handled foreign policy and defense issues for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

Besides Lippert, the core Obama group consists of three people who worked in President Bill Clinton's administration: former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and former senior State Department officials Susan Rice and Gregory Craig. They meet regularly in Washington. Lake was the NSA adviser during Clinton's first term. Rice was the senior adviser on national security affairs for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004, an assistant secretary of state for African affairs and a special assistant to the president at the National Security Council at the Clinton White House.

Craig -- quarterback of Clinton's impeachment defense team -- was director of policy and planning at the State Department under former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2000, Craig was at the center of the fight over Elian Gonzalez, representing the Cuban youth's father in his custody fight. Craig met Obama in 2003 at a fund-raiser for his Senate bid at the home of Washington powerbroker Vernon Jordan.

The Obama circle widens, depending on the need for expertise.

Dennis McDonough, a former policy adviser to former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), advises on Latin American affairs; Daniel Shapiro, who has worked foreign policy for Democrats on the Hill, is Obama's main outside consultant on Israel. During the Clinton administration, Jeh Charles Johnson was general counsel for the Department of the Air Force.

Lippert, Rice, Craig and McDonough were at sessions helping prepare Obama for the first Democratic debate last month.

When Obama traveled through Africa, Scott Gration, an Air Force major general, was at his side. Gration, since retired, is a Swahili-speaking St. Charles native with vast operational experience in Europe and Africa. Gration's expertise ranges from Iraq -- he has pipelines to fellow generals -- to veterans issues to thinking through practical ramifications of policy proposals.

When it comes to ideas and vision, Obama has on tap Samantha Power. Early on his tenure as senator, Obama reached out to a variety of people in the foreign policy community and one was Power, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. She is a professor of foreign policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

After she met with Obama, she decided she wanted to work for him and spent part of 2005-2006 in his Senate office. While Lippert is an expert at nailing down details, Power provides big-picture advice for Obama with her deep background in human rights, failing states and genocide prevention.

The Obama foreign policy team deals with counterterrorism, democracy development and the inter-related matters of energy and the environment, global health, homeland security and nuclear nonproliferation, among other issues. There's also a cadre of former Clinton officials who are very involved with the Obama campaign who for now want to stay below the radar screen.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on May 10, 2007 6:43 AM.

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