Beltway domino theory: On the departure of Admiral Dennis Blair

Beltway domino theory: On the departure of Admiral Dennis Blair

The resignation of Dennis Blair is significant in two respects. First, it creates a wonderful opportunity for the Obama administration to reconsider the misbegotten idea of the Directorate of National Intelligence. This entire costly bureaucratic layer could be rendered obsolete if only the president chose to empower the director of central intelligence to do the job he was intended to do in the first place — which is to coordinate intelligence flows among the multiple agencies of the intelligence community and to channel the intelligence effectively to policymakers. Just because past presidents have been unwilling to do this is doesn’t mean Obama or his successors can’t or shouldn’t.

Quite the contrary, the tensions between Blair and CIA Director Leon Panetta and the degree to which the DNI and his bureaucracy either slowed intel flows and processes or failed to improve them to a degree worthy of their cost suggests a good, hard look in the direction of this undoing of the Bush mistake would be warranted.

Next, it is the first rumbling of what could be a truly major restructuring of the Obama national security team in the next six or seven months. While Washington rumors are just about as dependable as Washington promises, there is widespread expectation that the post-midterm election period will see several major departures. Among these could be Gen. Jim Jones at the NSC and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In the words of one senior official with whom I have spoken recently, they have offered Gates "everything but the kitchen sink to stay" but he has been intractable. Given that Gates is almost certainly the second-most-powerful man in Washington — because he is Obama’s most important validator in a policy realm in which the president is extremely vulnerable, because he is almost certainly the best defense secretary in modern U.S. history, and because he is a vital ally to people like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — his departure would be an especially heavy and widely felt blow.

Indeed, it is Obama’s vulnerability on the national security front that makes the changes that are likely to come so significant. With deadlines looming in Iraq and Afghanistan that are unlikely to be satisfactorily met, with the Iran nuclear process itself the victim of many missed deadlines and initiatives that have been or are likely to be unsuccessful, with the Israel-Palestinian issue festering, possible war between Israel, Lebanon and Syria brewing for the summer, unabated terrorist threats, and an out-of-control and unaffordable defense budget, this is no time for a house cleaning.

Add to the mix the rumored departures of key political players who have had big roles on these issues like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod and this early tremor seems especially foreboding. Among the rumored replacements for Gates, by the way, we find not only Sen. Jack Reed and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, but because both have chinks in their armor — Reed is a Democratic senator from a state with a Republican governor (meaning if he left his replacement might not be a Democrat), and Hagel is smart and respected but has a reputation for being a bit challenging to deal with at times — a new name has joined the list being buzzed about: Hillary Clinton.

She has Armed Services Committee chops, might like the bigger budget, and many covet her job at State. Also relevant as the games of possible musical chairs go is the fact that Tom Donilon, Jones’s deputy, would not only be a candidate to replace him, he might be a candidate to replace Emanuel. This, were it true, would only create further turnover on the national-security side.  (This is why I think he is unlikely to get that position which, in my opinion, should go to the guy who should have had it in the first place, former Sen. Tom Daschle.)

One last point: Denny Blair is an exceptionally gifted man who has contributed enormously to the U.S. throughout a remarkable career of public service. He is one of those guys about whom the glowing words spoken about him at the time of his departure ceremonies will actually be true.