By Other Means

The case for appreciation…of Obama’s national security centrifuge

By Doug Wilson Like Rosa Brooks, who has generously allowed me to post the following comments, I am a former Obama political appointee. I served at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense, the department’s senior spokesman and communications strategist.  I left earlier this year, not because I hated the job but because I loved ...

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

By Doug Wilson

Like Rosa Brooks, who has generously allowed me to post the following comments, I am a former Obama political appointee. I served at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense, the department’s senior spokesman and communications strategist.  I left earlier this year, not because I hated the job but because I loved the work so much I didn’t rest enough — I got fat and I didn’t get enough exercise. I loved the people I worked with, including Rosa. She had never served at the Pentagon and initially feared she never would. Prior to her appointment, she had been concerned that she was too left-of-center to be appointed, and later, to be accepted by her Pentagon colleagues. Neither turned out to be the case: The Obama national security team went to bat for her because of her talents and drive, and her Pentagon colleagues came to like and respect her. She listened to and respected them; she understood you could disagree without feeling betrayed and she made significant contributions in reforming information operations and introducing cutting-edge links between military and human rights issues.

So I was blown away to read Rosa’s Friday column called "The Case For Intervention… In Obama’s Dysfunctional Foreign Policy Team." I understand that serving in government can sometimes make you frustrated and angry. But I grew up in an era where it was thought unseemly to pee publicly on the people who give you a chance to serve your country and make a difference. So blame the following response to the column on old-fashioned values and a starkly different personal perspective.

I was not one of the first people appointed to the administration. I was never in an inner circle, and although I attended countless communications meetings, I never attended a deputies or principals meeting. I met the president no more than a few times during my tenure. People younger than I, with fewer years’ experience in foreign affairs, held higher and more powerful positions. From time to time, I got yelled at.

But largely thanks to the people on President Obama’s National Security Staff, I left with the greatest satisfaction and pride I have ever felt from any job I have had over the past four decades. Because of them, I was at the table throughout the entire sausage-making process, when military leaders and political appointees worked together until they finally came up with the smartest, most unified, and most coherent approach to defense spending I have seen in 40 years. Because of them, I got to help men and women in uniform whom I knew and who had hidden in plain sight for years become whole human beings with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Because of them, I got to see young men and women in uniform from every state in the U.S., all of whom had served in Iraq, many missing a limb or two, wander in awe with their spouses, families, partners or significant others throughout the White House at the first state dinner ever held to honor the troops.

I also got to work with them on a daily basis, together with colleagues and counterparts from the military services, the State Department, and the CIA. We all participated in what seemed like endless zillions of interagency videoconferences on Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, Iran, Libya, Syria, China, Wikileaks — the full spectrum of hard and messy issues with which this administration has had to deal. I don’t regret a single one of them because the National Security staffers who led them were dedicated to getting all of the input they could; to ensuring that all of us who were stakeholders in the outcome would be stakeholders in the process that produced the outcome; and to doing everything possible to getting the policy right.

I didn’t know National Security Advisor Tom Donilon well and almost never engaged directly with him — but that was neither my role nor my goal. A tour de force briefing he gave to the service chiefs and combatant commanders at the Pentagon, engaging in give-and-take that was frank, respectful, and hugely substantive, blew me away. I don’t care who likes him one day and is mad at him the next. I’m glad we have an individual with that level of experience and expertise — and real understanding of and commitment to this nation’s interests — leading the National Security Staff.

I know Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes better. I have been yelled at by both of them and I would walk off a cliff for either of them. They are two of the smartest, most capable, and most dedicated people with whom I have ever worked. They will not rest until every single stakeholder from every relevant agency or department on a given issue has been heard from — that was my experience throughout my entire tenure. Their approach is holistic, they respect talent, they listen to dissent, they set high standards.

I’m not sure exactly to whom you refer, Rosa, when you bemoan all the "young and untried campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios" but I do know that as a result of many years of effort by many Democrats to develop and nurture new foreign policy talent, there are some amazing young people making significant contributions to this administration’s foreign policy record. I’m happy to name names, Rosa.

You are right to single out former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, one of the key investors in the development of new national security talent. The results of her investment efforts can be seen in the work of the remarkable team of female national security specialists she has nurtured: Former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans, and Forces Kath Hicks (now deputy undersecretary of defense for policy), who led the development of the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. Janine Davidson, who began her career in the United States Air Force as an aircraft commander and senior pilot for the C-130 and the C-17 cargo aircraft and became the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, where she oversaw the development of guidance for military campaign and contingency plans. Civil servant Amanda Dory, who became deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. Think tank experts Julie Smith and Celeste Wallander, selected by the Obama administration to lead Pentagon policy efforts on Europe and Russia, respectively. And you, yourself, Rosa, with a Pentagon portfolio that included rule of law, human rights issues, global engagement, and strategic communication.

Let’s name more names: Jake Sullivan at the State Department, the young lawyer with Clinton campaign credentials — and abilities to bridge gaps, synthesize issues, break logjams, and establish policy priorities that trump most of those my age with "deep expertise." Our mutual friend Dan Feldman, who learned a valuable lesson on his first trip to India — be careful what you eat — that has served him well on the subsequent myriad trips to central and southwest Asia with both the current and late former special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who’ve considered him the glue that binds that team together. Derek Chollet, who may look like he should be the son of the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs rather than the assistant secretary himself (which he is), but who has already worked for three secretaries of state and written six books on foreign policy. And Colin Kahl, now at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who as deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East played a pivotal role in designing and overseeing the responsible drawdown and transition strategy in Iraq, shaping the Pentagon’s efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and destabilizing activities and promoting unprecedented defense cooperation with Israel.

Many of them and many more like them fit your description of young former campaign aides managing vital substantive portfolios. Yes, there are some in government who are untested and yet to prove themselves. But given who we got in the Bush administration — the "experienced" ideologues and neocons we could get again — I’ll take the young men and women like those I’ve named, and many more, to understand and help guide this nation’s foreign policy interests in today’s world over the alternative any time. And I know you share my pride in the talent "bench" we’ve developed (finally, after all these years!) through the network of organizations that proactively nurtured that talent: CNAS, the National Security Network, Third Way, the Truman Project, and the Center for American Progress.

President Obama and his national security team brought that new talent into government. We learned they had a tremendous amount to contribute. They learned that being in government is like being in a centrifuge. You have to accept that when you go in. But look what we’ve accomplished in the Obama centrifuge so far: Stronger international partnerships. Outstanding military-intelligence cooperation. Feed the Future initiatives. Defense spending defined by a strategy, not by a meat-axe. Choosing to support democratic change in the Middle East, and committing to remain engaged, however messy it may be for awhile. Listening to throngs of even-newer generation Americans cheering outside the White House the night President Obama announced that U.S. military and intelligence had brought justice to Osama bin Laden.

Every organization has its share of assholes and jerks, Rosa. My experience, after serving in and out of government since 1973, is that the Obama administration has had many many fewer than any other in which I’ve served. So I don’t agree with your call on President Obama to find some "decent managers to run the National Security Staff — honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results"? They’re already there.

Doug Wilson served as assistant secretary of defense, the Pentagon’s senior spokesman and communications strategist, from February 2010 until March of this year. He is a national security adviser to the Obama campaign.

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