Checking his messages, he spots an email from the presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama: "I miss you, brother."
Mr. Lippert, a lieutenant junior grade sporting a buzz-cut and desert camouflage, is training here before being shipped out to Iraq, where he will serve as an intelligence officer for the Navy SEALs. In his civilian life, he is the chief foreign-policy adviser for Sen. Obama -- the Democrat whose most well-known foreign-policy stance is his opposition to the Iraq War Lt. Lippert is about to join.
|Mark Lippert in Sen. Barack Obama's office before shipping out to Iraq.|
Sen. Obama not only opposes the war, he has tried to distinguish himself in the Democratic field by stressing that he alone among the major candidates opposed it from the outset. And Lt. Lippert, 34 years old, has helped hone those views, particularly on a pullout of American troops, even as he prepared to go to war.
Since being called up for active duty and going on the Navy payroll, Lt. Lippert won't talk about his views on the war. "Now isn't the time for me to debate Iraq policy," Lt. Lippert says in an interview. "My job is to serve my country and to execute the decision of the commander-in-chief."
However, friends say that Lt. Lippert, from a family with a long military history, joined the Navy Reserve in 2005 even though he knew the deteriorating situation in Iraq meant the odds of fighting in the war were high. "Mark knew that he probably would be called to active duty," says his fiancée, Robyn Schmidek. "It's not the war he would have scripted, but he felt a higher calling to support the troops."
The deployment of Lt. Lippert -- who will be gone for about six months -- means a hole in Sen. Obama's foreign-policy team at a perilous point for the candidate. Sen. Obama is under sharpening attack by opponents and critics who say he lacks the experience in national-security affairs to lead the country in a time of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global fight with Islamic extremists.
It also means worrying about a friend who's suddenly in harm's way. Over the past two years, Sen. Obama and Lt. Lippert have traveled around the globe together, played one-on-one basketball and shared each other's shoes. Lt. Lippert has continuing email exchanges with the senator's half sister in Africa. Sen. Obama encouraged Lt. Lippert to get engaged. Sen. Obama calls Lt. Lippert, "one of my favorite people in the world."
Says former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, an Obama adviser, "The two men are experiencing what it means to have someone dear to you go to war."
The war has touched others on the campaign trail and in Washington. Republican candidate Sen. John McCain has a son deployed in Iraq. At the end of June, when Lt. Lippert went to Norfolk, Va., for processing, he met Sonja Maria Miller, an aide to First Lady Laura Bush who was also activated as a Navy reservist.
Here at the Coronado base, a vast naval complex where Navy SEALs train, Lt. Lippert is routinely asked by other sailors about his civilian job. At first, he says, he tried to answer that he worked in the Senate on foreign relations. Some Navy officers pressed: for which senator? Lt. Lippert, trying to play down his role with the presidential candidate, answered, "Barack Obama."
Lt. Lippert braced for some military personnel to debate the war once they found out he worked for Sen. Obama, but that hasn't happened. Instead, he says some sailors seem impressed that he is working for a politician whose name they recognize.
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Lt. Lippert grew up in Cincinnati and played basketball, baseball and football. Many of his mother's relatives served in the military; an uncle, also named Mark, served for 20 years. James Lippert, Lt. Lippert's father and a lawyer, received a deferment during the Vietnam War. But he says, "I've talked to Mark that I truly regret not serving my country. I had some of my best friends killed in Vietnam."
|Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama catches up with his chief foreign-policy staffer, Mark Lippert, who's about to be deployed to Iraq.|
As a teenager, Lt. Lippert dreamed of becoming an intelligence officer like the fictional Jack Ryan in the movie, "The Hunt for Red October." While obtaining a political-science degree at Stanford University, he considered Officer Candidate School, but instead stayed at Stanford for a graduate degree in international relations.
He then went to Washington seeking a foreign-policy job. After a stint at the State Department, he worked for Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein and Tom Daschle, before joining the foreign-operations panel of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- rising fast based on his smarts and ability to forge strong relationships with Capitol Hill staff on both sides of the aisle.
Lt. Lippert said he felt an urge to join the armed forces as the U.S. undertook more military actions following the Sept. 11 tragedy. He got the lengthy application in 2004, labored over it for months and finally applied to be a Navy reservist. In January 2005, he was commissioned. He began working one weekend each month at the Office of Naval Intelligence in Suitland, Md.
Around the same time, Sen. Obama, newly elected from Illinois, joined the Foreign Relations Committee, a perfect perch for a politician with presidential aspirations to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and speak about international hot spots. He asked his new chief of staff, Pete Rouse, who had run U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office before his 2004 defeat, for recommendations of a foreign-policy aide. Mr. Rouse had worked with Lt. Lippert and suggested him, among others.
Lt. Lippert saw a brand new senator with little traditional foreign-policy experience. Still, "I could tell Barack loved foreign policy," Lt. Lippert says.
As the two men began to travel the world on Senate business, their personal ties began to grow. Tall and solidly built, Lt. Lippert is laid back and jovial, at ease joking with Sen. Obama between meetings or riding in the car with him during a "smoke" (before the senator quit recently). They also have intense bursts of serious conversation, debating what are considered realistic timetables to secure nuclear material around the world.
In September 2005, the two men traveled to Russia on a weapons-inspection trip. They arrived hours early in Moscow and wanted to work out. When the senator's luggage was delayed, he borrowed Lt. Lippert's size-13 sneakers, even though they were two sizes too large.
After lifting weights at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Lt. Lippert recalls, Sen. Obama said, "Let's play one-on-one." The men played an intense game until they quit, sweating, with Sen. Obama the winner. "Barack has better moves and longer arms," says Lt. Lippert.
Sen. Obama's take: "Excuses."
In January 2006, Sen. Obama, as part of a congressional delegation, visited Iraq, where he bunked with Lt. Lippert in the old pool house of Saddam Hussein. A year into his reserve training, Lt. Lippert was gaining more insight into the military, a development that Sen. Obama valued. In Fallujah, while Sen. Obama met with one military official, Lt. Lippert stepped off to the side for a conversation with a Marine colonel. When Sen. Obama caught back up with him, he asked Lt. Lippert, "What did he say we should do to turn this situation around?" Lt. Lippert replied, "Leave."
The trip, Lt. Lippert says, helped strengthen Sen. Obama's growing belief that the U.S. needed to start bringing its troops home.
The two men grew closer when Sen. Obama set out in August 2006 for a trip to Kenya, his father's homeland. Lt. Lippert asked retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, who speaks Swahili, to join them. (Gen. Gration later signed on to advise the presidential campaign.) He arranged for Sen. Obama and his wife, Michelle, to get an HIV test, in an effort to publicize the problem of AIDS and promote testing, and arranged for Sen. Obama to go on live TV imploring Kenyans to root out corruption.
As Sen. Obama has built his presidential campaign he has attracted members of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment, including Anthony Lake, President Clinton's former national security advisor, and former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Lt. Lippert's role is largely behind-the-scenes, working to refine Sen. Obama's own ideas and finding other experts for input.
"I'm like a point guard," Lt. Lippert says. "Barack is about ideas and questions, and I don't have all the answers. He trusts me to pass the ball to others to give him points of view."
Lt. Lippert's biggest influence may have been in focusing Sen. Obama to stress confronting "trans-national" threats that don't emanate from nation-states -- threats such as genocide and weapons of mass destruction.
In April, Lt. Lippert helped draft the speech where the senator would lay out his foreign-policy goals as a presidential candidate. Largely ignoring old-line threats and institutions prominent since World War II, this speech laid out a "new vision of American leadership and a new conception of national security," Sen. Obama said. "Whether it's global terrorism or pandemic disease, dramatic climate change or the proliferation of weapons of mass annihilation, the threats we face at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer be contained by borders and boundaries."
Sen. Obama has also called for a far more aggressive approach to diplomatic engagement around the world, including talks with Iran, Syria and North Korea and an easing of the travel ban with Cuba.
Hillary Clinton harshly attacked Sen. Obama after one debate, calling his suggestion that he would meet with the leaders of hostile countries weak and naïve -- a line of attack that others are sure to emulate.
"I honestly feel the senator is not nearly ready for prime time" on foreign policy, says Douglas MacKinnon, former adviser to Sen. Bob Dole.
Sen. Obama "has lived foreign policy," says Lt. Lippert. With a Kenyan father, an American mother and a childhood spent in Indonesia, "Barack has a unique and deep-rooted understanding of the world and the U.S. place in it."
Adds Samantha Power, a Harvard professor and Pulitzer-Prize winning author who advises the Obama campaign, "Obama has plenty of people rounding out his foreign-policy circle, but ultimately he wants 21st century, not conventional, ideas."
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At the start of this year, as the need for fresh troops intensified, Lt. Lippert sensed his time to get in the war was approaching -- just as Sen. Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. "I want to get called up," he told Ms. Schmidek, his fiancée. "I don't just want to drill on the weekends. I want to make a difference right away. It will be fine with me if I go to Iraq."
In June, Lt. Lippert received word that he was being activated and had to report to duty.
He reached Sen. Obama on his cellphone in Chicago.
"Hey, I got mobilized," he recalls saying. "It's definitely happening."
"I'm worried about you," Sen. Obama replied. "I want you to be safe."
But Lt. Lippert still worried about his job. "The timing isn't great."
"I don't care about that," Sen. Obama said, according to both men. "Don't worry about us. Just get back here in one piece."
Lt. Lippert helped enlist Denis McDonough, onetime foreign-policy adviser to former Sen. Daschle, to take over his role.
Over the past three months, while preparing to be deployed, Lt. Lippert has remained in touch with his office. From his bachelor-officer housing, he has been briefing his successor by email and cellphone. Recently, the campaign sent him a terrorism speech that Sen. Obama was set to deliver; on another night, it was an op-ed column on Cuba.
But Lt. Lippert says he has ignored much of the campaign material sent to him because of his current mission. He also says he's just too busy -- drilling with an M-4 and full suit of body armor in the California desert, and learning wartime intelligence-gathering techniques.
Recently, Lt. Lippert fulfilled his final training: Dropped into a simulated operations center to provide intelligence to a SEAL team in a fake Iraqi village, complete with coyotes and scorpions and fake insurgents.
Lt. Lippert says he is looking forward to coming back in several months, rejoining the Obama campaign and getting married to his fiancée. "When you're going off to Iraq, your horizons become more short term," he says.
Earlier this week, he returned home to Washington for a few days. Sen. Obama, on the way to the gym, spotted Lt. Lippert on the street near the Capitol. "Come work out with me," he yelled. Lt. Lippert said he'd stop by the office that afternoon.
When they met, Sen. Obama and Lt. Lippert embraced.
"I think I've gained weight during training," Lt. Lippert complained. Within minutes, the two men had shut out the rest of the bustling Senate office. They sat in a corner and whispered, sharing deep-throated chuckles and gossip. When Sen. Obama's secretary tells him -- for the third time -- that he has to go to a meeting, the men are momentarily silent, then stone-faced.
"Be careful over there," Sen. Obama says.
Lt. Lippert replies, "Don't worry."