- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
There was a quote yesterday in the Washington Post from that ever-talkative "unnamed official" who is responsible for much of the news that comes out of the White House. It was regarding the national security personnel shuffle. Mr. Chatty Facelessness referred to the new picks as "The strongest possible team to exercise our strategies and polices. I stress the word team."
You can see why he wanted to be on background on that. He was really sticking his neck out.
Of course, even an anodyne self-serving observation can be a bit of a minefield when the terms it uses and the ideas it references are so full of unintended meaning and consequence.
First, there is the reference to "the strongest possible team." While the uninitiated might think the operative word there was "strongest" it is clearly "possible." Because by no means is this the strongest group of appointees on which the president could have settled. While I think the choices are very solid ones, neither Panetta nor Petraeus has any appreciable experience in the agencies they are being asked to run, nor even in the fields associated with those agencies. Suggesting that somehow military affairs and intelligence matters are substantively the same because they are both associated with national security is like suggesting the culture within the Pentagon is the same as or compatible with that inside CIA headquarters because they both happen to be on the opposite side of the Potomac River from the rest of the Washington bureaucracy. There are clearly other choices who would have brought more directly relevant experience to the jobs in question.
But the president wanted continuity, he didn’t want battles with the Congress, he didn’t want to risk bringing in a complete outsider, he doesn’t have a huge network of acquaintances with much experience in either area, his close advisors were distrustful of being too adventurous with the choices and so among the available, vetted, and capable within the Obama-verse, these were "the strongest possible." Of course that suggests that Hillary Clinton either would not have been a "stronger" choice at Defense or that she was not a "possible" choice and I will leave it to you to ponder why that might be so.
In fact, for those following the machinations of the Obama national security team closely, that last point brings us directly to the rhetorical flourish that lies at the heart of the bland but nonetheless unattributed observation: "I stress the word team." It is clearly intended to emphasize the high premium the president places on effective "no drama" collaboration within his administration. On this, it can be taken at face value as this is a real priority for Obama who is notoriously uncomfortable with discord in meetings in which he participates. But the subtext for observers of this team and this smooth process is that for all the merits of such a well-managed approach to problem solving is that process alone is not enough.
As the quotation suggests, in the end, it’s all about "strategies and policies." Right now there are big question marks about many of these for Obama from the "strategy" to handle the unrest in the Middle East to that for achieving our goals in Afghanistan, from the "policy" of intervening in humanitarian crises (where possible) to that for promoting democratic reform (where convenient). There is something to be said for this reshuffle’s theme of continuity because through working and reworking these issues more coherence is inevitable. That many of the current "strategies and polices" are at risk, spottily applied or aspirational is, however, one of the unintended reminders offered by the comment.
Quite apart from doing a Talmudic deconstructivist dance on this one bit of throwaway White House bumpf, the appointments yesterday send other more important messages that don’t require such heavy noodling. In fact, they help crystallize the aforementioned "strategies and policies" by underscoring what’s on the president’s mind. When Gates was hired as Defense chief, he was clearly being hired to assure continuity on the top priority issue of managing the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panetta, former budget hawk in Congress and one-time director of the Office of Management and Budget, sends a message that the next chapter at the Pentagon is going to be as much about downsizing and restructuring as it is about winding down those wars to help do so. Relocating our most prominent general officer from Iraq to Afghanistan and now to the CIA shows how Obama (and America) is shifting its focus in combating our most serious perceived threats. The intel community should probably have been the pointy end of the war on terror all along and with Petraeus there, the emphasis in its operational efforts will clearly be in the regions and with the enemies he knows best.
Coaxing and pleading with the exceptionally highly-regarded Ryan Crocker to go to Afghanistan is a sign of how challenging that dog’s breakfast of a conflict has become. Nothing illustrates that better than this week’s revelation that our ally Pakistan has gone to our ally Afghanistan and suggested they dump us (which I think is a little like the theme of the next Kate Hudson movie). That we are moving from the time when Obama felt he needed the high profile Petraeus on AfPak duty to one where the accomplished but less well known Lt. General John Allen is seen as a good choice to fill the bill also has to do with the desire/hope that Afghanistan becomes less central and, with the election approaching, less visible. That Allen is one of the Pentagon’s top brass with both strong relations with his colleagues in the military as well as with top Obama civilian advisors like Tom Donilon is also a plus that circles back to the team theme.
Finally, it’s worth noting that when Obama came into office he picked top officials who were "name brands" in order to add to his credibility. In this reshuffle, the emphasis is more on buying the Obama house brand, proven commodities familiar to the other members of his team. That’s not a bad thing by any means given that it shows a more genuinely rather than defensively self-assured president.
While it is possible to read too much into a quote from an unnamed White House official, a major personnel move like this one sends important messages about where the president wants to go and how he wants to get there. The overall message here is reassuring. While important issues remain to be resolved by this not-so-new team, it doesn’t take an insider’s eye to see that this president is internalizing and effectively applying the lessons of his first couple years in office even as he signals important, and smart, redirections in U.S. national security policy.