By Other Means

‘You’ll never eat lunch in this town again!’

They say that "may you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse, and my last few days have certainly been interesting. Last week’s column on the inner workings — or not-workings — of the National Security Staff provoked a great deal of comment. The great majority of the comments that came my way were ...

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

They say that "may you live in interesting times" is a Chinese curse, and my last few days have certainly been interesting. Last week’s column on the inner workings — or not-workings — of the National Security Staff provoked a great deal of comment. The great majority of the comments that came my way were complimentary, but some were decidedly not.

The sheer quantity of comment is in some ways odd, since allegations of dysfunction within President Barack Obama’s National Security Staff (NSS) are nothing new. Bob Woodward describes NSS infighting at length and in lurid detail in his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, for instance, and James Mann’s 2012 book The Obamians offers a similarly scathing portrait. (Describing a foreign policy inner circle made up of Tom Donilon, Denis McDonough, John Brennan, and Ben Rhodes, Mann observes that "The Obama White House didn’t like independent actors or internal discord. It also didn’t like to be challenged, certainly not in public, and not on the foreign policy issues of greatest sensitivity for Obama.")

Nevertheless, the twittersphere responded to last week’s column with gleeful astonishment, and the emails fell from the sky like autumn leaves.

First, here’s a sampling of the critics: "Naïve," sniffed one commentator. A second hypothesized that I was a "Republican masquerading as a far-leftie disappointed that Obama hasn’t yet joined the world in singing kumbaya… yawn." A tweeter declared me an "idiot," while another emailer simply urged me to stop "writing this slosh in a national format … it’s better served in a happy hour setting with your Republican friends." Still another blog commenter took an opposite view of my politics, declaring, "[The] thing about Rosa Brooks is she’s a leftist scumbucket, so her judgment is hardly to be trustworthy." [sic.]

The most extensive critique of my column comes in a guest blog post from Doug Wilson, formerly the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Doug is a friend, and a more humble soul than I. He considers it a privilege to be yelled at by senior White House officials, and is dismayed to discover I do not share that view.

During his time as the Pentagon’s senior spokesman and communications strategist, Doug Wilson was entrusted with the not-always-easy task of defending the Defense Department and the Obama administration to the Fourth Estate (which is chock full of ingrates and assorted malcontents). Since his departure from the Pentagon, he has continued to eloquently defend the administration as a national security adviser and high-level surrogate for the Obama re-election campaign.

Defending the administration is an important job, and Doug does it very well. It is not, however, my job.

My job, as I see it, is to write honestly about what I think, learn, and observe. Like all that I write, last week’s column was research-based. It drew on my own experiences, but it also drew on previously published materials and on interviews with current and former administration officials.

The senior-most members of President Obama’s National Security Staff are not private citizens. They’re public officials — indeed, they are among the most powerful officials in the nation. As such, they’re legitimate targets of public criticism — and just like us columnists, they sometimes have to take their lumps.

Last week’s column also received a great deal of positive feedback from current and former government officials, many with recent experience with and on the National Security Staff. A handful were willing to comment publicly — former counterterrorism official Will McCants, for instance, tweeted that the "article is a service 2 NSS, which wants rid of some bad apples @ top if O reelected." Power relations being what they are, however, most of those who reacted positively to the column asked that their names not be used.

A sampling of comments — stripped of identifying information — is at the end of this post, but before reproducing them, I should correct a significant misunderstanding that seems to animate much of Doug Wilson’s ire.

In last week’s column, I urged the importance of meritocratic hiring, noting that in the Obama administration, "too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios … while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined." In response to this, Doug offers an impassioned defense of Michèle Flournoy, Kath Hicks, Janine Davidson, Colin Kahl, Amanda Dory, Julie Smith, Celeste Wallender, Derek Chollet, and Dan Feldman, all of whom, he seems to believe, fall into the category of "young and untried campaign aides" who would never have been hired if I’d had my way.

He’s got the wrong end of the stick. Those are people I admire and respect, and they are the very antithesis of the problem I decried: far from being untried, they all came to their jobs with years, sometimes decades, of relevant experience. Not coincidentally, nearly all of them were part of Michèle Flournoy’s policy team at the Pentagon. As I noted on Friday, "I was fortunate to hold a job as a political appointee in President Obama’s administration … and more fortunate still to have worked at the Defense Department for Michèle Flournoy, a gifted defense intellectual and a superb leader and manager — who bears no responsibility for anything foolish I say. (The smart stuff, I learned from her.) Inevitably, working for someone so talented made the relative dysfunction at the White House stand out even more glaringly."

A final note: If I implied that Policy Planning’s Jake Sullivan belongs in a different category from Flournoy et. al., it’s not due to any lack of respect for his intellect, character, or competence. By all accounts, he is a terrific guy. (I have met him only briefly.) I suspect, however, that it might have been possible for the State Department to find some other terrific guys (or gals) who share Sullivan’s fine qualities, but couple them with greater depth and breadth of foreign policy experience.

My broader concern, however, relates to the apparent lack of longer-term strategic planning and strategic vision in the Obama administration. Precisely because it is full of smart, competent people, the Policy Planning shop at State — like the NSS Strategic Planning directorate under its previous leader, Derek Chollet — tends to get sucked into helping manage the constant stream of day to day crises and mini-crises, turning their staff into utility infielders of sorts. At State, with Jake Sullivan dual-hatted as Secretary Hillary Clinton’s deputy chief of staff, this structural tendency is exaggerated. Can this be fixed? Sure, but only with strong leadership from the very top — without a forcing function, the day to day crises will always trump discussions of long-term strategy questions.

Some have commented that while my critique is accurate, similar criticisms could probably be leveled at the national security staffs of every recent administration. That may be so (though to paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy NSS is unhappy in its own way).

But shouldn’t Barack Obama’s supporters hold him to a higher standard? This president promised leadership, a forward-looking foreign policy that’s true to American values, and a transparent, accountable, competent government. Our world is growing ever more complex, and the price of failure– or simple mediocrity, complacency and reactiveness– is growing ever higher. I am convinced that there is enough talent and experience on the Democratic bench to do a whole lot better than we’ve been doing — and I hope President Obama gets four more years in which to fix what’s broken. In tonight’s foreign policy debate, he has a vital opportunity to tell us how.

Below is a sampling of the positive comments I received in response to last week’s column. Most are from current and former Obama administration officials with NSS experience; a few are from think-tankers, NGO leaders, and Hill staff with frequent interaction with the Obama foreign policy team.

"That was a brave, astute and well-written article that not only laid out the problems in the national security infrastructure but also the solutions, a rare combination indeed. Thanks for having the chutzpah to put this out there…. Speaking truth to power is really intimidating, especially when you’re walking the line between an administration you support and its dysfunction…."

"[Your column] really was a boost to those of us who can’t speak right now…. The reason you got the reaction you did is because it does hit close to home. If it was way off, you’d hear crickets."

"I thought your column was a brave and patriotic act. Far too few are willing to provide honest, constructive criticism of their own party, no matter how much we may prefer them to the alternative. It is a disservice to public discourse and does the president no favors. I think the timing of the piece will be fine too. The president has shown himself more than capable of prosecuting his case in a debate and it may even nudge the discussion toward more substantive issues than who said what when about Benghazi. If so, double thanks for that."

"In the military we have what we call "tough love", and … [it] isn’t ingratitude or insolence; it’s telling people and organizations what they need to here, versus what they think they might like to hear. In a real way, it is the highest form of flattery and respect; you don’t bother to give to it to people and things that don’t matter. The best leaders understand this, and that’s why they seek out people like Rosa instead of surrounding themselves with "yes"-person sycophants." (This is an excerpt from a longer comment from a retired Pentagon general; his full comments are posted separately as a guest blog here.)

In addition to feedback on the column itself, I also received many substantive comments on the Obama foreign policy team and its process. Here’s a sampling, edited to protect sources’ identities:

"[At the NSS], people are incredibly frustrated. There’s no strategy on [important issues], and it’s a result of structural problems. Decisions are made in small groups of Denis and Tom’s favorite friends, and they exclude half the interagency any time the mood strikes. There’s basically no relationship between State, DoD and the White House. Denis and Tom seem to have contempt for the departments and agencies. The atmosphere is mass distrust. People feel shut out right left and center."

"The White House sees itself as creating policy, and the agencies are just supposed to implement it. Which is astounding, given the lack of depth and the small teams at the NSS. They just lack expertise."

"We’ve seen the decay of the long-term strategy and policy planning function into a ‘six weeks ahead’ function."

"There’s a lot of favoritism…. We have inexperienced young appointees — these kids, they don’t want to be in trenches…. We need a less nepotistic process…."

"No one gets any feedback from Donilon — they have little contact with leadership, and there’s a lot of jostling for position. The animosity between Tom [Donilon] and Denis [McDonough] is very blatant … they disagree on how to structure meetings and on how to tee things up for principles, but they also have substantive disagreements — the two contradict each other on what the White House position is … it’s become like high school."

"You want to be inspired … but there are days when you think to yourself, these can’t be the best and the brightest…."

"The NSC is too small to run the government and too large not to run it. The NSS staff is both ferociously overworked and they can’t actually run anything."

"[Issue X] is the perfect case study of ineffectiveness, inability to drive interagency and crappy process. I don’t think I came in too naïve but I am shocked at how broken it is."

"The NSS was supposed to be a place to: issue the guidance from above on general principals. "Commander’s intent" if you will. Then facilitate and ensure interagency coordination. They were to get involved, only when things weren’t functioning properly. Some of those at the NSS played this role well. Others would simply pile one demand on another, with no solid concept of what the different roles and capacities of the separate departments were."

"They need to figure out how to solve the strategic planning gap. Everyone say they have no time for long-term strategic thinking, but if not now, when? It feels like triage all the time. They need to put someone more senior in these strategy and policy planning positions, with credibility…. And give the policy shops the leeway to carve out DCs and PCs focusing on mid and long term issue — meetings where principles are forced to come around the table, and ask [the] big questions, even if it’s only 4 times a year. Instead, God love them, the strategic thinkers and policy planning types keep on churning but get no attention."

"You never have the right people in the room [at the NSS], with these small groups and all these by-name requests to dc or pc-like meetings. It means that lesser known but better experts probably won’t be in the room. Decisions are made by a clique — without the depth to make really complicated decisions."

IPCs, DCs, and PCs "produce Summaries of Conclusions," but there’s selective implementation: "there is no consistent method of enforcing" or ensuring that taskings actually get done.

"[Obama] needs to find a way to work with Congress differently … there’s just no meaningful dialogue [with the Hill] on international issues. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to take a message from one end of Pennsylvania Ave to the other…."

"[T]he NSS is a job that requires significant management skills. Unfortunately, some people were placed there because of their knowledge or connections, but not because they had proven that they knew how to manage others…. [T]hey would lose their tempers when their micromanagement and stifling of initiative from below [led them to be] dealt with like amateurs."

"You have to put political capital and air time into work on international issues. The White House missed an opportunity to revamp foreign aid with congress while we had a majority in both houses, because they didn’t want to work with Congress. What happened to the nuclear agenda? He didn’t put any political capital into it. They didn’t put capital behind closing Guantanamo, either. If you want to have a legacy, you have to be out there talking about things and working with people."

"[NSS top staff would] get lost in the cocoon… A very senior NSS official state[d] … that "everyone in the country will understand why we take the polices we take," because of their "evident success," and therefore [they] require little explanation to the American people. Obviously he’d already drunk the cool aide, or was even mixing it, by that point."

"I continue to be amazed, given that we are working in the foreign policy field, there are people like [top NSS officials] who have very little exposure to living overseas or dealing with foreigners…. Their instincts on how things will be read abroad are very poor…. They have no instinct for the political sensitivities of others … they have no exposure to foreign communities. [As a result] they make decisions that backfire."

"The NSS runs at such a fast pace" that it can’t focus on long-term planning; the White House needs to "invest in offices at NSS and State with that sole job."

"[This administration] paid a heavy price, giving up principles to gain what they thought would be a pragmatic upside on foreign policy … but what has [Obama] gotten for it? Is he any better off now than if he’d been principled in the first place?"

"The president’s not very good at relationship management anywhere…. Democrats on the Hill couldn’t stand the president or his team. The White House just sent out arrogant, obnoxious people to the Hill."

"Whether you agree or disagree with the president’s foreign policy (and I agree with most of it even when it’s been modified by reality), this national security staff (like many others in the past) seems weighed down by personality and inability to translate presidential vision into strategy."

"There are plenty of brilliant minds that also have the leadership skills to lead efforts to build our security strategy, but where are they?… [T]his administration could be doing better. The bar should be higher…. The NSS [should be a place] where loyalty means managing (and participating in) the debate, and then translating the results into strategy. "

"We need leadership that gets along … it’s time for a fresh start. Clinton is now the only person left, aside from Biden, who ever asks the hard questions — the president needs someone to challenge assumptions."

That’s all, folks! Anyway, that’s more than enough. You’ll have to decide for your very own selves whether I’m onto something, or am a no-good, rotten ingrate — or, perhaps, a no-good, rotten ingrate who is on to something. Let me know what you decide by contacting me here.

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