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Obama’s power players

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joseph Biden, and national security advisor Gen. James L. Jones, of course, are the Obama administration’s foreign-policy heavyweights. But beneath the layer of cabinet secretaries, who are the most influential foreign-policy players on the team? The following is FP‘s list of the 10 administration ...

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joseph Biden, and national security advisor Gen. James L. Jones, of course, are the Obama administration’s foreign-policy heavyweights. But beneath the layer of cabinet secretaries, who are the most influential foreign-policy players on the team? The following is FP‘s list of the 10 administration officials who, according to existing reporting and with input from sources, are driving U.S. foreign policy in the Obama era:

Thomas Donilon: As deputy national security advisor, Donilon, 53, is the lynchpin of the interagency process, in charge of running the deputies meetings, where the real foreign- policy options get ironed out (Deputies Committee members do the heavy lifting for their agencies in the interagency process, and speak for their principals). Donilon is what keeps the government together, one associate said. "He doesn’t have time to talk; he runs the government when it comes to foreign policy." "Tom is a real pro," the NSC’s director of strategic communications Denis McDonough said. He "runs agenda-driven meetings, no drama, all facts, careful to make sure everyone with equities is heard and does not shy away from the hard questions. The president feels fortunate to have him on the team."

James Steinberg: As a former deputy national security advisor himself, Steinberg, one of two deputy secretaries of states (along with Jacob Lew), is a veteran of the interagency process, where he now represents Clinton’s State Department. With a reputation for prodigious intellectual energy and command of a comprehensive range of national-security issues, Steinberg brings competence as well as longstanding relationships with other players sitting around the deputies table and in the wider administration. Lew, a former Clinton-era director of the Office of Management and Budget, oversees development, staffing, management and budget issues for Foggy Bottom, and is said to have a closer relationship with Clinton, for whom he was recently dispatched on a quiet mission to Afghanistan. But Steinberg, department sources say, spends as much as half his time at the White House, the nerve center of the interagency process where policies get hammered out and where the thrust of the national-security action in the new administration appears to be happening. Sources also caution not to underestimate Lew’s influence on long-term development and staffing issues, however.

Michèle Flournoy: As under secretary of defense for policy, Flournoy is technically the Defense Department’s No. 3 official. But in the interagency process, according to many sources, Flournoy functions as the No. 2, attending the Deputies Committee meetings as the DoD’s civilian representative (Marine Gen. Jim Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, represents the uniformed brass and is "a very influential voice on the Deputies Committee and with the president," one White House associate said). A former Clinton-era principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction who cofounded the Center for a New American Security, Flournoy shepherded a team of think tank-bred, hard- and soft-power wonks into her policy shop as lieutenants to work on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other strategic issues, even before the confirmations of many State and other DOD officials were formally announced. Obama was able to announce major policy shifts on Iraq soon after taking office in large part fueled by thinking out of Flournoy’s shop. Next up, she’ll take the lead in writing the Quadrennial Defense Review, the influential blueprint that will help shape U.S. strategic posture for the future. With conventional wisdom being that Defense Secretary Gates may not serve out a full term, and Deputy Secretary William Lynn focused on making the trains run on time, Flournoy’s ascent to even higher echelons of government seems likely.

Anthony Blinken: Dual-hatted as national-security advisor to Vice President Biden and the deputy representing the Office of the Vice President at deputies meetings, Blinken is a former Clinton-era NSC senior director for Europe and a long-time aide to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Blinken "is important to Biden, and Biden is important," one associate observed. There has been a concerted effort to integrate Biden and Blinken into everything done on the foreign policy side. Both men sit in on the president’s daily intelligence briefing in the Oval Office, usually the first meeting of the day. Both attend the weekly meetings Obama has with Clinton, Gates, and every other national security meeting the president has. And when Biden is traveling, Blinken attends such meetings on his own. Blinken is good friends of long standing with Donilon, Steinberg, and Flournoy, the other main participants in the Deputies Committee. As another associate notes, Blinken "has been around forever and everyone likes him." Blinken’s wife, Evan Ryan, also used to work in the Clinton White House and is now Biden’s chief of intergovernmental affairs and public liaison.

Mark Lippert: Once the only foreign-policy aide to then Senator Obama, Lippert, now the NSC No. 3 and chief of staff overseeing a staff of well over 200 people, maintains a relationship with the president unrivalled by that of any superior or the many hundred foreign-policy hands now serving in the administration. He’s the "gatekeeper, scheduler, and trip planner," said one associate. A Stanford grad who worked for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on Capitol Hill, Lippert signed up for the Navy reserves as an intelligence specialist, and ended up getting deployed for a year to Iraq at the height of Obama’s presidential campaign. Like other no-drama, low-key campaign aides that have ascended into the White House, Lippert is described as a very serious guy with a sense of humor who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s "in all the important meetings and talks to Obama all the time, while managing the trains," an observer noted.

Denis McDonough: A former aide to Lee Hamilton on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and later to then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, McDonough was recommended to Obama by Lippert when the latter got deployed to Iraq, and went on to serve as a foreign-policy advisor to the Obama campaign in Chicago. Now the NSC’s director of strategic communications, McDonough has, with Lippert, in many ways proven to be the closest of Obama’s foreign-policy advisors. McDonough’s relationship of trust with a network of key foreign-policy players who have ascended into the administration (many of them also former Hamilton aides), starting with the president himself, exceeds his actual rank. "The president loves Denis," a former Democratic Hill associate observed. "If the president is calling anybody at 2 a.m. on a foreign-policy question, it’s Denis. In every meeting with the president … Denis is in the room. He is always in eye-contact location with the president." Given his job’s communications duties, McDonough has a degree of visibility as the face of the NSC to outsiders and the press, while colleagues like Donilon and Lippert work behind the scenes.

David Axelrod: The original Obamaite, the black-mustachioed Chicago political guru who now serves as White House political advisor, is more involved in policy than might be expected given the controversies associated with Karl Rove’s role in the Bush administration. Axelrod has been a player in issues where policy meets politics (which turns out be everything), from White House and administration appointments to delicate foreign-policy issues such as the U.S. relationship with Israel. Mideast watchers noted that Axelrod was one of four key advisors in the room during Obama’s meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres earlier this month, and he’s been prominent in communicating the White House’s talking points on the Sunday talk shows. He’s also been enlisted into targeted White House outreach efforts to Jewish American groups on the Middle East peace process, and accompanied Obama to Turkey, Prague, and the G-20 and NATO summits. "Axe takes part in NSC discussions irregularly — he is in few meetings," an administration official said. "But of course he has a direct line to the president."

Rahm Emanuel: One administration associate described the White House chief of staff as "powerful on all things." The former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff, Chicago congressman, and Democratic Party enforcer has an office "no more than a three-second walk" from Obama’s in the West Wing. "Rahm has strong, very informed views on many foreign-policy issues and attends a fair number of meetings," another associate noted. He was also present with Axelrod for the Obama-Peres meeting — a sign of his standing on key foreign-policy matters, argues former national intelligence council advisor Steve Cohen. His presence "told the Israelis in the most clear possible way that ‘I serve the president of the United States and there is no distance between my role with regard to this search for peace in the Middle East and that of the president.’"

Richard Holbrooke: The U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan reports directly to the president and the secretary of state, has enlisted as many as 20 people from across the U.S. government to his mission, and is working on perhaps the most pressing national-security challenge currently confronting the United States. A former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and Germany who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, Holbrooke once again finds himself spearheading the national security crisis of the day. With an outsized reputation for bureaucratic maneuvering and sharp elbows, Holbrooke is seen as less encumbered by the bureaucracy (like the other envoys, he didn’t have to undergo the confirmation process) even while he has influence within it (including on South Asia appointments, sources describe). He has also enlisted some of the top talent in and out of the government for his Af-Pak mission, hiring Iran expert Vali Nasr early on and becoming the first U.S. official of the new administration to have a meeting, albeit one described by Secretary Clinton as "cordial" but not "substantive," with an Iranian counterpart. It’s widely assumed in Washington that Holbrooke has his eye on a higher-level administration post if and when he finishes with his current job.

William J. Burns: The under secretary of state for political affairs and career Foreign Service officer links the State Department’s career officials with its top layer of political appointees. A former U.S. ambassador to Russia and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, the low-key Burns is Washington’s public face at the P5+1 negotiations with allies on Iran, and is navigating the set of strategic issues — Russia, Iran — at the forefront of the U.S. national-security agenda. Burns is a "quiet and unassuming guy everybody likes working with," one associate said.

Bonus Pick:

Barack Obama: The president is unquestionably "the decider," says one administration official. "Obama is a man of great policy interest and great self-confidence," said the University of Maryland’s I.M. Destler. "Obama wants to have a lot of strains of information to view and consider things himself." As president, "Obama has gone even further in building alternative centers of policy strength in the White House," Destler, co-author of a new book on the NSC, further observed. The president who famously refused to give up his Blackberry has made unusual efforts to make sure he does not become subject to the presidential bubble or the yes-men syndrome that afflicted his predecessor, frequently reaching out to solicit the input of aides in meetings regardless of their rank or seniority. "The president does connect the dots," one official said, adding, "There is a broad strategy at work" connecting his nonproliferation, Russia reset, Iran and comprehensive Middle East peace policies. "His proliferation strategy would be hard to make without showing responsible U.S. leadership."

Laura Rozen writes The Cable daily at