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What do the personnel moves (and the reporting on them) tell us about Team Obama?

What do the personnel moves (and the reporting on them) tell us about Team Obama?

I am tardy on commenting on things my Shadow Gov colleagues have already commented wisely upon, but as I was wont to tell my dissertation advisors back in the day, "better late than never."

Some thoughts on the security team shuffle:

  • The Crocker appointment is good news for everyone concerned (except the Bush School in Texas A&M, which loses a fine Dean).President Obama is to be congratulated on cajoling Crocker back into the diplomatic fray. However, unlike my blogpost which is only a few days tardy, this move is probably a year-and-a-half overdue. Obama did his Afghanistan policy no favors by leaving Ambassador Eikenberry in his post so long even though it was evident that Eikenberry (albeit a fine patriot who has served honorably) was not able to forge the constructive relationship with either the Afghan or the coalition military partners that the job demanded. For all of the reporting on Obama’s Afghan policy, I have never heard a satisfactory answer to why Obama stuck with Eikenberry as long as he did.
  • The Panetta appointment is a reasonable one. It is high time a Democrat held the post, and Panetta more than checks the partisan Democrat box. His strong suit is budget, and the fiscal challenges at DoD are daunting. His appointment confirms what Obama has been signaling for quite some time: the administration views Defense as a promising place to make deeper cuts. That is worrisome, but it is reality; elections have consequences. My concerns are twofold. First, as Tom Mahnken pointed out, the system is facing some very serious civil-military relations challenges. It is not clear to me that Panetta has the background or experience to deftly handle that part of the job; the most successful Democratic SecDef I can think of, Bill Perry under President Clinton, had extensive DoD experience before he took the top job. Second, for all his strengths, Panetta is not a strategist (unlike some of the other names that were floated, such as Richard Danzig, John Hamre, or Michelle Flournoy — and unlike his predecessor). This means that the strategy deficit that FP colleague Tom Ricks earlier noted just got a wee bit bigger. It probably doesn’t help that one of the most able strategists in the administration just got moved, which brings me to….
  • The Petraeus appointment leaves me a bit puzzled.Why move your best strategist away from a line function to an advisory one, and one that is by tradition supposed to be scrupulously neutral on policy? For that matter, if you are insistent on moving him from line to staff, why not move him to Chairman of the JCS, the position he is most qualified for? Of course, I know the answers to these questions: the CIA has a major and growing operational role and in that respect Petraeus will likely excel; the White House wants Petraeus on a tight leash and feels that in the CJCS position he would be to Obama what Colin Powell was to Bill Clinton, a thorn in the flesh; at CIA, Petraeus is constrained from calling out the administration if policy errors lead to disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, and/or Libya. All in all, this is a shrewd move that is optimized for President Obama’s 2012 electoral strategy. How good it will be for American national security strategy is still to be determined.

Speaking of national security strategy…what about the remarkable Ryan Lizza article that indelibly imprinted the label on the Obama doctrine, "leading from behind"? I found it revealing, but not in the ways that Lizza probably intended:

  • The article is in the well-worn tradition of credulous puff-pieces about President Obama’s national security acumen, but even if the reporter is boosterish, if he is honest (as Lizza appears to be), he can’t help but make implicit critiques.For instance, Lizza promotes the new paradigm of Obama national security as "consequentialism," a pragmatism that transcends old realist vs. idealist labels. The problem is, however, that even on their own terms the consequences of Obama’s national security efforts have been dodgy — a fact that Lizza’s article notes in passing. The Administration came in promising to rebalance U.S. priorities with a stronger focus in Asia and a lighter focus in the Middle East. Yet America’s position in Asia is no better than what was inherited from Bush in 2008 and, by intervening in the Libyan civil war, the administration has committed the United States even more intensively and militarily in the broader Middle East.To be sure, the administration is resolutely marching to the exits in Iraq, but what have been the consequences of that thus far? For a strategy of consequentialism, the piece is remarkably light on assessing consequences.
  • To me the strongest take away from the article is the apparent irrelevance of Vice President Biden. I have commented on Biden’s strange absence from the foreign policy stage before and since that time he has apparently given one desultory press interview focused on foreign policy. Perhaps he has been a more vital player behind the scenes, but if so that fact escaped Lizza’s extensive reporting. Indeed, junior State Department staffer Jared Cohen comes off as more consequential than Vice-President Biden, whom Lizza mentions exactly once: as being on distribution for a presidential memo. 
  • Speaking of that memo, Lizza’s treatment of it struck a discordant note to my former staffer’s ears. Lizza describes it thus:

On August 12, 2010, Obama sent a five-page memorandum called "Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa" to Vice-President Joseph Biden, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other senior members of his foreign-policy team…the President wrote. He noted …Obama’s analysis showed a desire to balance interests and ideals. … Obama wrote. …Obama instructed his staff … He told his advisers to … He also wrote that…"

Inside the ellipses was all the specific content of the memo, which presumably was classified yet handed to Lizza so he could quote it verbatim and at length. I have no objections to the content, and I understand why the White House leaked it to Lizza. The memo gives the unmistakable impression that the President was completely on top of events in the Middle East (ahead of them, actually), despite the lurching and reactive flow of actual administration activity (not to mention consequences) of the past four months.

What intrigues me is what leaps out when you look at the verbs connecting the ellipses. Lizza is telling us that the president sat down, drafted a five page terms of reference for a major regional strategy review, and then gave it to his national security team much the way a professor would hand out a demanding take home exam to his top graduate students.  It could have happened that way and, if it did, that would be a remarkable and newsworthy fact worth highlighting.  It would show a presidential-level devotion to staff work not seen since President Carter reviewed the scheduling of the White House tennis courts.  I do not know any seasoned White House hand who thinks that is how it happened, but if it did, surely Lizza should explore its significance more.

Instead, what happened, I am willing to bet, is that on August 12, Obama signed what in Clinton’s day used to be called a Presidential Review Directive — a terms of reference drafted by the NSC staff with input from the interagency and then turned into a presidential tasker to be sent back to the NSC staff and the interagency to execute.  The NSC staff can on their own authority direct the interagency to study something, but when it is really important it helps to have the big boss signature on it to overcome bureaucratic inertia. Certainly President Obama read the terms of reference, probably it reflected his strategic guidance, possibly he tweaked it to reflect more precisely that guidance, but it is a stretch to say he "drafted" it. White House staffers will make that stretch, but seasoned reporters usually unstretch it when they translate it for their readers.  Lizza passes it along in its fully stretched form.

This is more a critique of Lizza than of the White House staffers who tried to spin him. And, to be fair, Lizza is no worse and probably a bit better than many of the correspondents reporting on the Obama White House. But in their zeal to portray sympathetically a president with whom they sympathize, I think the reporters are doing their hero a disservice. The White House flacks are trying to make their boss look as good as possible, a perfectly understandable spin effort.  Usually, sympathetic reporters will tone down the spin effort so what the readers actually see is an apparently balanced but largely positive account.  Instead, Lizza and others seem to pass the spin right along. To mix in a different analogy: The Obama people put their TV makeup on but Lizza didn’t filter it through the television screen so what you get in natural light is a garish make-up job.