But Trump surprisingly adopted the position that Obama shied away from, a recognition that Putin could be an important asset in resolving major international crises. The real-estate-mogul-turned-politician stuck to that "outside-the-mainstream" position despite fierce attacks from rival Republicans and Democratic presidential nominee Clinton, who even mocked him as Putin's "puppet."
President Barack Obama meets with President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the sidelines of the G20 Summit at Regnum Carya Resort in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice listens at left.
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After Trump's upset victory on Nov. 8, many pundits assumed that Trump would fall back in line with Washington's hawkish foreign-policy establishment by giving top jobs to neocons, such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, or Netanyahu favorites, such as former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney or ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
So far, however, Trump has followed a different course, more in line with the libertarian thinking of the Koch brothers -- not only the more famous ones, Charles and David, but also their long-estranged brother William, who I'm told have become behind-the-scenes advisers to the President-elect.
Though Trump did offer high-profile meetings to the likes of Romney and Giuliani, he has yet to hand over any key foreign-policy job to the Republican neocon wing. His one major announcement in that area has been naming as National Security Adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency when it produced a prescient warning that U.S. policy in Syria would lead to the creation of an "Islamic State."
Though Flynn is regarded as a hardliner in the fight against Islamic jihadist terror, he is seen as an independent thinker regarding how best to wage that war. For instance, Flynn has objected to the notion that drone strikes, i.e., killing off individual jihadists, is a route to success.
"We've tended to say, drop another bomb via a drone and put out a headline that 'we killed Abu Bag of Doughnuts' and it makes us all feel good for 24 hours," Flynn said. "And you know what? It doesn't matter. It just made them a martyr, it just created a new reason to fight us even harder."
That leaves open the possibility that a President Trump might eschew the "whack-a-mole" approach that has bedeviled the "war on terror" and instead go after the "mole nest" -- if you will -- the Saudi monarchy that has long financed Islamic extremists both through the fundamentalist Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam and by supplying money and weapons to jihadists dating back at least to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, the origin of modern Islamic terrorism.
Traditional U.S. politicians have recoiled from facing up to the hard reality that the Saudi monarchy is the real "terror central" because of Saudi Arabia's enormous riches and influence, which is now enhanced by its quiet alliance with Israel in their joint campaign against the so-called "Shiite crescent," from Iran through Syria to Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Taking on this Saudi-Israel nexus has long been regarded as political suicide, given Israel's extraordinary lobbying power and Saudi Arabia's exceptional wealth. But Trump may be assembling a team that is "crazy" enough to take on that mission.
So, while the fight over the future of U.S. foreign policy is far from over -- the neocons will surely flex their muscles at the major think tanks, on the op-ed pages and inside the halls of Congress -- the Trump transition is showing some creativity in assembling a national security team that may go in a very different direction.
Much will become apparent in Trump's choice of Secretary of State. If it's someone like Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, or Rep. Gabbard or a libertarian from the Kochs' world, that would be bad news for the neocons. If it's someone like Romney, Giuliani, Bolton or Woolsey, then that will mean that President-elect Trump has blinked and the neocons can breathe a sigh of relief.