Shadow Government

New insights contradict Team Obama’s self-reports of ideal national security policy process

The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court’s controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story ...

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court’s controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story is the mushrooming revelations about the Obama administration’s suboptimal national security policy-making process.

The most shocking charges have come in a series of excerpts from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book. The book makes a string of damning charges: that the Obama team sought to suppress intelligence that ran counter to its policies; that the president was actually disengaged from the policy process and not the forceful decider his spinners were claiming; that the team let petty personal feuds trump wise policy; and so on. This comes on the heels of other deeply sourced accounts that reported that the White House political office was in the room when the national security team was deciding on targets for drone strikes, and the extent to which someone leaked details about covert operations that made Obama look strong on national security.

I agree with Paul Miller that the excerpts from the Chandrasekaran’s book have a tabloid feel to them, and may indeed contain as much distortionary spin as any White House press spokesman’s daily briefing. It is not too hard to cherry-pick vignettes that ring false. For instance, this brief account strikes me as misleading:

But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet — which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more marines in Helmand. The civilians didn’t know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.

From his seat along the wall, Obama’s top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy — whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries — they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.

Lute may or may not have felt that way, but the book makes it sound like that was the end of the matter. But Lute was uniquely positioned to address this problem by virtue of his privileged access to the president and to Jones and his control over the paperflow for the review. So I think it is more likely that the account describes a problem that provoked Lute into taking some remedial action. Only reporting the problem without reporting the remedial action paints a distorted picture.

Yet, even after discounting for such likely distortions, the picture that remains is disturbing. It would seem to put to rest the myth that this administration has been vastly superior to historical norms in terms of bureaucratic process. And it makes some of the gushing words of the myth-purveyors almost cringe-worthy when reconsidered in context.

Take, for example, our own FP’s David Rothkopf:

To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook … not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.

Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals’ meetings, deputies’ meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.

But even a proven structure won’t work if the president and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the president enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the vice president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result — even in the eyes of top Bush officials — was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.

Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process.

Or David Ignatius:

The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility — and he’ll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.

Donilon’s advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones’s deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.

"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.

Or Edward Luce:

‘The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger — no one else plays that role,’ says a senior official. ‘Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.’… ‘By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.’… At the end of each meeting, the president summarizes what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer’s clarity," says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. ‘When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.’

It didn’t take a lot of insider knowledge at the time to recognize that those puffed-up descriptions probably exaggerated the quality of the national security policy process. Now, thanks to a wave of books drawing on extensive insider leaks, it is possible to see just how unduly flattering the early praise was.

When the pundits return to national security issues — as surely they must at some point in the coming months — perhaps they will return with a bit more realistic awareness of the process problems that have plagued this administration, just as they plagued previous ones.


Update: A friend sent me a note suggesting that I was guilty of distortion myself when I cherry-picked the Chandrasekaran piece, particularly when I ended the quote where I did. He points out that the very next paragraph would seem to rebut my claim. It reads:

After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet’s next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to "demonstrate momentum" in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.

My friend is right that I should have included that extra paragraph, but I think my basic point still stands regardless: Surely Lute was perfectly positioned to follow up further and press the matter again with McChrystal? Yet the (entire) excerpt makes it seem like he did not, like his unsatisfactory initial exchange was the end of the matter. Now, giving Chandrasekaran the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did investigate further and found no evidence of any follow-up. If that is the case, given the extensive reporting in the piece, it is a pretty damning incident, indeed. For my money, I suspect that Lute and others took some remedial action that is not covered in the reporting.

Either way, my overall thesis seems on solid ground: The Obama national security process has been no where near as idyllic as the boosters have claimed.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola