Foreign Policy Drops Partisanship for a Day, at Least

Is this the start of more bipartisan foreign policy engagement, or an only-in-Saudi-Arabia performance?

Saudi's newly appointed King Salman (R) shakes hands with US President Barack Obama at Erga Palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Condoleezza Rice. Stephen Hadley. Fran Townsend. Brent Scowcroft. James Baker. It's an understatement to say these are names not usually associated with President Barack Obama.

Still, when it came time to put together the U.S. delegation that is visiting Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to offer condolences on the death of King Abdullah, the White House reached well outside its comfort zone to reflect the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship over decades, tapping past national security advisers and secretaries of state from Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush (plus Sandy Berger, from Democratic President Bill Clinton's administration) to join Obama on the visit.

Obama has long faced criticism for running too insular a team when it comes to national security. It hit such a high pitch earlier this month, after Obama failed to go to Paris to mourn the Charlie Hebdo victims or send Vice President Joe Biden, that veteran foreign-policy analyst Les Gelb went so far as to call on Obama to fire his national security team and chief of staff. 

The bipartisan delegation to Saudi Arabia could provide Obama an opening to more closely engage past Republican advisers in the final two years of his presidency if he wants—though it's not clear whether that's likely to happen or whether this is primarily about diplomacy with the oil-rich country critical to U.S. foreign policy involving Sunnis, Israel, Iran, and counterterrorism efforts.

Saudi King Salman (left) greets former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice alongside President Barack Obama at the Erga Palace in Riyadh on Jan. 27, 2015.

Saudi King Salman (left) greets former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice alongside President Barack Obama at the Erga Palace in Riyadh on Jan. 27, 2015.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president that the delegation "represented people who had been invested in the Saudi relationship for a long time and who knew King Abdullah well."

"We worked to make sure that we had bipartisan representation from members of Congress given the deep congressional interest in the relationship with Saudi Arabia," Rhodes said. "We also wanted to make sure we had bipartisan representation across different administrations. We were able to have a number of former administration officials, including Republican administration officials, join us."

The delegation, Rhodes said, "meets the threshold of being bipartisan, high-level and individuals who worked very closely with Saudi Arabia over many years."

Gelb, in a telephone interview, said of the delegation, "That's a hell of a good group," though what's important is how much Obama will empower them and seek their input going forward. Right now, he said, "There isn't the kind of give and take that you need." "Simply to send them, that doesn't make U.S policy," he said. "I would bring those people in and spend the day saying, 'What is our strategy now?'"

"The Saudis probably did more to create the jihadi phenomenon than any other state," Gelb said. "They supplied the arms and the money. It's not like they have a message that's going to unite the Sunni world. They have pursued a policy of keeping their power at home and supporting radical causes abroad."

Here is the full delegation announcement:

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

January 27, 2015

President Obama Announces Delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Offer Condolences for the Passing of King Abdullah

President Barack Obama will lead a delegation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to offer condolences to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud, on the passing of the King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz.

The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States, will lead the delegation on January 27, 2015.

Members of the Presidential Delegation:

The Honorable Joseph W. Westphal, Ambassador of the United States of America to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable John McCain, United States Senator from the State of Arizona

The Honorable Mark Warner, United States Senator from the Commonwealth of Virginia

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Representative from the State of California

The Honorable Eliot Engel, Representative from the State of New York

The Honorable Ami Bera, M.D., Representative from the State of California

The Honorable Joseph Crowley, Representative from the State of New York

The Honorable Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement

The Honorable Susan Rice, Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor

The Honorable John Podesta, Counselor to the President

The Honorable Anita Breckenridge, Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations

The Honorable Tina Tchen, Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady

The Honorable Jennifer Palmieri, Assistant to the President and Director of Communications

The Honorable Benjamin Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting

The Honorable Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism

The Honorable Josh Earnest, Assistant to the President and Press Secretary

The Honorable Chase Cushman, Assistant to the President and Director of Scheduling and Advance

The Honorable Peter A. Selfridge, United States Chief of Protocol

The Honorable John Brennan, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

The Honorable Melissa Winter, Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff to the First Lady

General Lloyd J. Austin III, Commander of U.S. Central Command

The Honorable James Baker, Former Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State of the United States of America

The Honorable Brian Deese, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget

The Honorable Brent Scowcroft, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Sandy Berger, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Stephen Hadley, Former National Security Advisor of the United States of America

The Honorable Frances Fragos Townsend, Former Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security

###

Angela Greiling Keane contributed to this report. 

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