Mark Lippert is hardly the kind of man most people would expect to find as Barack Obama's longest-serving foreign-policy adviser. The buzz-cut Navy reservist has just returned to his civilian job at the senator's office after a year's deployment in Iraq. His boss may have made his name with his antiwar stance, but Lippert has spent far more time on the ground in Iraq than most of Obama's right-wing critics ever will.
Until Obama launched his presidential campaign, Lippert was his only senior foreign-policy aide. Now the presumptive Democratic nominee has more than 300 experts advising him on foreign affairs, organized into roughly 20 specialized groups and weighing in on every conceivable issue. The top ranks include two veterans of the Clinton administration: former assistant secretary of State Susan Rice and former national-security adviser Tony Lake. But day-to-day, Obama relies on two key aides. One is Denis McDonough, a former Capitol Hill staffer based at Obama's campaign HQ in Chicago. The other is Lippert.
The candidate's staff is facing its toughest challenge yet in this week's voyage overseas to the Middle East and Europe. It's an extraordinarily public test of a presidential contender's mastery of world affairs, and behind-the-scenes preparations have been intense. But if Lippert is worried, he's not letting it show. Like the rest of the team, Lippert prides himself on staying flexible. Back when Obama and Lippert had more free time, they liked to play basketball together. Lippert says as a Senate aide he was like a point guard, passing the ball to outside experts like GOP Sen. Dick Lugar and former NATO commander Gen. James Jones. "There's no pretense with Mark," says Rice. "He's down-to-earth and very much a pragmatist. He's like Senator Obama—not an ideologue, but a 'how do we get things done' kind of guy."
As a kid, Lippert wanted to be an armed forces officer. He never outgrew that ambition, even after earning an international-relations degree at Stanford and taking a job on Capitol Hill. Joining the Navy Reserves as an intelligence officer and going to Iraq helped to reconcile the old dream with his career as a congressional staffer. "I was proud to do it, in a very cornball way," Lippert says, although he hated to go just when Obama's campaign was taking off. "It's tough," says Lippert. "You have to leave him right at the time when … you kind of want to rally around him."
He won't say where he went in Iraq or precisely what he did there, except that he worked with Navy SEALs. But he readily admits he faced little physical danger: "I had no mishaps, other than cutting my hand on a cracked crab in the dining hall." Still, he believes the experience has changed his approach to policy. "I think you recognize that when you work in the Senate, you work at the strategic level. And I was [in Iraq] at a very tactical level," he says. "It would be naive if I came back and said I have the answer. But what it did do was give me a sense of more personal investment in the place. I'm still very much grappling with it."
Since Lippert came home, the staff has been kept busy fending off accusations that Obama has swung to the right. Lippert himself has been an advocate for rebuilding the U.S. military and for increasing the size of the Army and the Marines. So is he a stealth hawk inside Obama's office? Lippert scoffs at the thought, recalling the work he used to do for Vermont's decidedly nonviolent Sen. Patrick Leahy: "All we did was human-rights stuff, over and over again." But Lippert says he still has to sort out what he saw in Iraq: "It changes you. The place, the deployment changes you. To what extent and how, I'm still working through that."