Daniel W. Drezner

Denis McDonough earned his pay today

Denis McDonough earned his pay today

Denis McDonough is the director of strategic communications for the National Security Council.  I mention this because whatever McDonough has done in the first six months at the NSC, getting Michael Crowley to write this glowing essay about Obama and the NSC in The New Republic was the cherry on top. 

Here are the key paragraphs: 

Whether he is shaping the White House’s message on Iran, or personally cajoling Asian leaders to crack down on North Korea, or brokering power deals among NATO allies, Obama has, in effect, been his own national security advisor and secretary of state. Unlike Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, who had world events thrust upon them, Obama seems to be more in the mold of Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush–a president involved in foreign policy because of, not in spite of, his priorities and personal interest. "He’s very engaged, very hands-on," says his longtime foreign policy adviser, Mark Lippert, now chief of staff at the National Security Council (NSC)….

To this administration, process is not simply the poor cousin of strategy. Process is what allows harmony and progress amid multiple challenges and viewpoints. Senior Obama aides call it "regular order"–a system that gives the president a diversity of views with minimal infighting and back-channel maneuvering, little leaking to the press, and no public airing of dirty laundry. "Regular order is your friend," says Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications for the NSC. "The system only works if you have adult behavior."

Thus far, the system has confounded skeptics who predicted melees among big-name advisers and conservatives who warned that Obama lacked the experience to govern in such dangerous times. "The level of harmony is just striking," says James Goldgeier, a national security aide in the Clinton White House and a political scientist at George Washington University. There are signs, however, that the administration’s approach to foreign policy, however well-intentioned and well-executed, is vulnerable to unexpected challenges–the very kind that are likely to multiply the longer the president is in office.

Read the whole thing. My take is that, while based in reality, Crowley’s essay has the whiff of someone who talked to a lot of White House officials (including the NSC staff) but not a lot of other foreign policy figures. Goldgeier’s quote is the only outside evaluation.* No one outside the White House is quoted by name. The evidence for foreign policy harmony and NSC control over the policy process comes from… NSC officials. 

Just to be clear, I don’t think Crowley is telling tall tales.  The occasional gaffe aside, Obama’s first six months on the foreign policy job have been pretty decent — especially compared to the first six months of George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.  But it is odd that in an essay on Obama’s foreign policy process, there’s very little about Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, or Timothy Geithner in this essay. There’s no discussion of reports about Clinton chafing — and trust me, there are reports about this stuff. There’s very little about their reaction to Obama’s decision-making process.

On the whole, I hope that Crowley is correct. The best way to ensure a high quality of American foreign policy is to have a president actively engaged in the process, and this piece suggests that to be the case. Still, the only thing I was sure about after reading this essay is that Denis McDonough is very, very, very good at his job.

Well, there’s one other thing I’m sure about — I would have loved to have listened in on this phone conversation: 

[I]n at least one instance earlier this year, Holbrooke received an angry phone call from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel after the diplomat was perceived to have stepped on Obama’s public message about the war effort.  

Sounds like a job for the Undersecretary of Go F**K Yourself.

*Oh, and given that Goldgeier was a foreign policy advisor to Obama during the 2008 campaign, I’m not sure I’d call him impartial, either.