Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

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Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.)

Former Kerry SFRC staff director Frank Lowenstein, recently at the Podesta Group, is thought to be under consideration for a senior State Department post under Kerry, possibly Policy Planning chief, Democratic sources said. Kerry has been accompanied on some his recent State Department briefings by two of his top Senate staffers, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director Bill Danvers, and his chief of staff David Wade, a Democratic source said Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman is widely expected to stay on under Secretary Kerry, department sources said.  Sherman, former counselor to then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and later principal at the Albright Group,  worked early in her long Washington career  in the 1980s as chief of staff to then Maryland Democratic Congresswoman, now incoming Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), and Kerry is close with the Albright crowd, Democratic sources said. (Mikulski and Albright are close friends).

At the NSC, as the Back Channel first reported back in November, NSC Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa Steve Simon will leave, to head the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (IISS-US). Speculation on who might succeed him is somewhat  premature: they need to get the principles in place first which will affect who might end up where. But among those reportedly in the mix to succeed him, is Jon Alterman, a former State Department Policy Planning and Near East bureau staffer who directs Middle East studies and holds the Brzezinski chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

(Other names mentioned as possibilities for administration Middle East jobs: Marc Lynch, a former Obama campaign Middle East advisor who directs Middle East studies at George Washington University, Joel Rubin, a former State Department and Senate staffer who heads government relations at the Ploughshares Fund and appeared frequently on TV during the fall to discuss foreign policy; and Perry Cammack, the Middle East advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Kerry and Biden.)

If Talwar leaves the NSC Persian Gulf post, among those in the mix to take the top NSC Iran strategy job is Georgetown University's Colin Kahl, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East who served as a top foreign policy advisor to the Obama/Biden 2012 reelection campaign.

Meantime, if Hagel is confirmed as Secretary of Defense, he will have significant number of posts to fill at the Department, especially in its civilian OSD ranks.

Among the possibilities, as the Back Channel previously reported, is that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter could be nominated to become Energy Secretary. Supporters of former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) are also making the case for him for the post.

(Photo: Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with then US Senators Joseph Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel in Ankara February 22, 2008. REUTERS/Presidential Press Office/Mustafa Oztartan.)

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