Can Obama’s foreign policy be saved?
a top diplomat from one of America’s most dependable Middle Eastern allies said to me in July of this year, “but you no longer know how to act like one.”
He was reflecting on America’s position in the world almost halfway into President Barack Obama’s second term. Fresh in his mind was the extraordinary string of errors (schizophrenic Egypt policy, bipolar Syria policy), missteps (zero Libya post-intervention strategy, alienation of allies in the Middle East and elsewhere), scandals (spying on Americans, spying on friends), halfway measures (pinprick sanctions against Russia, lecture series to Central Americans on the border crisis), unfulfilled promises (Cairo speech, pivot to Asia), and outright policy failures (the double-down then get-out approach in Afghanistan, the shortsighted Iraq exit strategy).
The diplomat with whom I was speaking is a thoughtful man. He knew well that not all of these problems are the result of the blunders of a single really bad year or the fault of any one president. The reality is that any president’s foreign policy record depends heavily on luck, external factors, cyclical trends, and legacy issues. And, to be sure, Obama inherited many of his greatest challenges, some of the biggest beyond his control.
Obama’s presidency is largely a product of a moment in history that likely will be seen someday as an aberration—the decade after 9/11, during which a stunned, angry, and disoriented America was sent spinning into a kind of national ptsd. Call it an age of fear, one in which the country and its leaders were forced to grapple with a sense of vulnerability to which they were unaccustomed. The response of George W. Bush’s administration—entering into the long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remaking U.S. national security policy around the terrorism threat—led to a backlash that ushered Obama into office with a perceived mandate to undo what his predecessor had done and avoid making similar mistakes.
The problem is that in seeking to sidestep the pitfalls that plagued Bush, Obama has inadvertently created his own. Yet unlike Bush, whose flaw-riddled first-term foreign policy was followed by important and not fully appreciated second-term course corrections, Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented. It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.
As a result, for all its native confidence and fundamental optimism, the United States remains shaken and unsteady more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks. Many of its problems have only grown dangerously worse: Its relative influence has declined; the terrorism threat has evolved and spread; and U.S. alliances are superannuated, ineffective shadows of their former selves. Compounding this is such gross dysfunction in Washington that, on most issues, the president is presumed to be blocked by Congress even before he has had the opportunity to make a move.
Obama’s presidency is largely a product of a moment in history that likely will be seen someday as an aberration—the decade after 9/11, during which a stunned, angry, and disoriented America was sent spinning into a kind of national ptsd.
If the nation is to recover fully, Obama must not only identify and attempt to reverse what has gone wrong, but he also must try to understand how he can achieve new gains by the end of his second term. That is to say that huge challenges remain unaddressed and rising to them requires a hard look at himself—his responses, his messages, his management, and his team.
He must start by devoting special attention to the instances that knocked his foreign policy off the rails. And one stands out, even in the minds of some of the president’s most prominent loyalists.
On Aug. 20, 2012, Obama met with reporters to discuss the crisis in Syria. When pressed to respond to the growing chaos and human toll there, the president replied as he had since the onset of Syria’s war: He blended tough rhetoric with assiduous avoidance of risky American commitment to helping any of the parties to the conflict. But in an unscripted moment, he suggested that he would take action against the Syrian regime if it used chemical weapons, saying, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
Despite intelligence reports of multiple violations of that red line, the White House managed to ignore or sidestep the issue—that is, until exactly one year later, when, on Aug. 21, 2013, a major chemical-weapons attack claimed the lives of an estimated 1,429 people in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb.
The tripwire strung by the president himself had been clearly and unmistakably tripped. Now, his credibility was at stake.
Three days later, Obama met with his national security team and indicated that he was inclined to strike Syria, ordering naval vessels, with the capacity to deliver cruise missiles against Syrian targets, into position in the Mediterranean Sea. The planned attack would be small, be delivered from afar, and pose essentially no risk—beyond the reputational—to the United States or its allies. Even so, Obama did not want to be seen as acting alone. Lacking many close relationships with European or other world leaders, he called one of the few he thought he could count on: British Prime Minister David Cameron, who suggested he was ready to help with military action. The two moved rapidly in seeking a quick response from the British Parliament. But Obama, Cameron, and their teams would soon discover that they had moved too quickly and had badly miscalculated. To many members of Parliament, the leaders’ one-two punch evoked the George W. Bush-Tony Blair misadventure in Iraq. The scars hadn’t quite healed from that experience. Shockingly, to the White House and to the prime minister’s office, Parliament rejected Cameron’s call to arms.
...in seeking to sidestep the pitfalls that plagued Bush, Obama has inadvertently created his own.
This coincided with the U.S. Congress’s growing doubts about the action. Some, perhaps most, of this was politics. The Republican Party had long before embraced obstructionism as a principle strategy in its efforts to damage the Democratic president. Obama asked his top national security advisors, Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel—both former senators—and National Security Advisor Susan Rice to help persuade Congress to offer support. (Unlike some of his more effective predecessors, Obama had little appetite to work to personally build congressional backing, whether by horse-trading, intimidation, working the phones, or otherwise harnessing the power of the bully pulpit.) More skeptical than ever after the British vote, however, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats could see the wisdom of supporting the president’s red-line statement.
Despite these headwinds, by the afternoon of Aug. 30, 2013, the White House appeared set to follow through on the limited- attack option. Kerry was sent out to deliver an impassioned set of casus belli remarks to the public, laying out the rationale for action, and commanders expected to receive their orders the next day.
But later that afternoon, the president went on a walk around the South Lawn of the White House with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, a longtime loyalist whose relationship with the president dates back to just prior to the 2008 campaign. McDonough was not just a chief of staff—he was a member of the president’s tightly knit innermost circle and a former deputy national security advisor. McDonough had also long been one of the voices urging that America not get involved in Syria, often stiffening the commander in chief’s resolve to keep out of the crisis when pressure came from others, such as first-term Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who thought Washington ought to do more to support moderate opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It was during their 45-minute stroll that Obama shared with McDonough his concerns about following through on his Syria plan.
Afterward, when the two joined a small group of top advisors in the Oval Office, Obama reportedly announced, “I have a big idea I want to run by you guys,” and then segued into his new plan to put action on hold until he could get a formal vote of congressional support. Many in the group were stunned by the news, including Rice, who reportedly argued that it would send a message of vacillation and would set a bad precedent of deferring to Congress on such issues.
Notably, the group did not include several key national security principals. Obama called Hagel to let him know about the decision to punt. Absent as well was Kerry, whom Obama later privately informed about his change of mind. The secretary of state’s team felt he had been treated badly, having been asked to play the role of front man on this issue just hours before.
“This was the real turning point for the administration’s foreign policy,” a former senior Obama advisor told me. “This was when things really started to go bad.”
With Syria festering for more than two years amid pleas to the United States for leadership and support from longtime regional allies, the media was primed to respond, and many critics immediately assailed the president for being indecisive. It was a charge that, despite the president’s tough decisions on issues such as launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, had not bubbled up overnight.
It was clear from the outset that Congress would never approve the president’s request and that, in asking for it, he was effectively seeking to be denied—as if to say, “Stop me before I take a risk I really don’t want to take.” It also set a precedent that would seemingly require the president to seek congressional approval for future military actions, even though the War Powers Resolution explicitly notes that he does not require it.
Fortunately for Obama, an opportunity soon arose—thanks to a proposal from the Russians and some swift action by Kerry—to negotiate a deal in which the Syrians would agree to give up their chemical weapons. This was more than a fig leaf. It eliminated a serious threat to the Middle East. However, the embrace of that deal led to further unintended consequences: It made Assad look more reasonable and required him to be in place in order to get rid of the weapons. This only pressured the Syrian president less, while providing an excuse for continued U.S. inaction in support of Syria’s moderate opposition.
A year later, the world is witnessing the Hydra-headed worst-case scenario in which Assad is stronger, according to Obama’s own top intelligence advisor, retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper, and Assad’s most dangerous radicalized opponents, now called the Islamic State, have also gained considerable ground. The group has not only seized much of Syria, but it also has spread its mayhem into Iraq, raising the prospect of the emergence of a new extremist state straddling what was once the Syria-Iraq border.
The tensions around the Syria crisis had other knock-on costs that were themselves symptomatic of a misfiring process and team. For example, on the edges of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, which took place Sept. 5 and 6, 2013, Washington continued to push for international support of military action as it had been doing ineffectively since late August. In one meeting, Rice pressed the German delegation relentlessly for leadership within the European Union. The Germans sought more time and consultation with other eu member states, frustrating Rice to the point that she lost her cool and reportedly launched into a profanity- filled lecture that featured a rare diplomatic appearance of the word “motherfucker.” Germany’s national security advisor, Christoph Heusgen, was so angered that he told an American confidante it was the worst meeting of his professional life.
(Rice’s bluntness and hot temper have undercut her effectiveness throughout her career. In July 2014, the New Republic reported that she once confronted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas outside the Oval Office, saying, “You Palestinians can never see the fucking big picture.” A U.N. ambassador of one of the world’s major powers told me that he didn’t “understand what she thinks she is achieving by talking to us like a longshoreman.” The brusqueness hasn’t helped with her interpersonal relationships within the administration or with her staff, either. It is a particularly frustrating Achilles-heel for someone who is well known among her friends as having the capacity to be very warm, humorous, and engaging.)
The timing of the dust-up with Germany was particularly bad. Within a few weeks, revelations that Washington had been spying on the German leadership added a further chill to the relationship. When Rice’s counterpart called her prior to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first call with Obama on the issue, Rice compounded her past action with something even worse: She offered a defense that suggested Obama was either incompetent or a liar. That is, she told the Germans that the president did not know about the spying.
Rice’s relationship with the Germans had deteriorated so significantly by the summer of 2014 that when Washington sought to repair the bilateral strain over surveillance issues, it was apparent to those who knew the history that it might be counterproductive to have Rice head the U.S. delegation visiting Germany to patch things up. Instead, McDonough—in a rare diplomatic mission for a chief of staff—led the team that met with Heusgen and others. (Needless to say, given Germany’s centrality to the Atlantic alliance, bad blood hasn’t helped during the Ukraine crisis, either.)
McDonough’s trip framed still other questions about the sometimes-blurry structure and discipline of the White House’s national security process. As national security advisor, Rice had already begun to breed resentment at the State Department for playing a high-profile role usually reserved for the secretary of state. Now, with the Germany mission, Obama’s chief of staff had undertaken, on the president’s behalf, a function that traditionally would have been handled by the State Department (or quietly by the national security advisor). What’s more, the structure of the mission sent the message that McDonough might become something like a second national security advisor—or, at least, that he might assume somewhat greater national security responsibilities than many of his predecessors had. (Kristie Canegallo—one of McDonough’s deputies, who, like her boss, also has National Security Council experience—has as one of her stated duties oversight of issues associated with the war in Afghanistan.)
This crossing of lines led one former national security advisor from a Democratic administration to tell me, “If it had been me and they tried to do that, I would have quit.”
A weak point of the Obama White House has always been management style and structure. The problem begins with the fact that, as with five of the past six U.S. presidents, Obama had very little foreign policy experience before he was elected. But of those five, Obama was unique in that he lacked any executive-management experience of any sort: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush had all been governors. Furthermore, he had only four years of Washington experience and a personality that was “much more that of the lawyer than the ceo,” according to a senior administration official.
As a result, Obama has been deliberative to a fault and an inveterate seeker of the middle ground. He also has not been inclined to develop strong bonds with most of his cabinet members or to empower them or agency heads, which is essential in a sprawling U.S. government that is the world’s largest and most complex organization.
Compounding the management problem was the president’s own undermining of his system. During National Security Council (nsc) and other staff meetings, for example, he was known for going around the room and asking for everyone’s views (often putting subordinate aides in the awkward position of undercutting or deviating from the views of their bosses). Typically, such meetings would end without the president making a decision. He would later reveal whatever conclusion to which he had come to a handful of close White House aides, often the small group with which he met each morning to review the latest intelligence. This took transparency out of the process and overly empowered his inner circle.
The hope was that, in his second term, the president might address some of these issues. But by all reports, the situation has gotten worse. On the foreign policy side, this has meant that “the true believers”—as one first-termer called McDonough, Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, among others—have moved up and gained power, periodically being supported by Obama’s closest political advisors. Many of the people who often offset their views—such as Hillary Clinton, former cia Director Leon Panetta, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates—have moved on.
Obama has been deliberative to a fault and an inveterate seeker of the middle ground. He also has not been inclined to develop strong bonds with most of his cabinet members or to empower them or agency heads, which is essential in a sprawling U.S. government.
Kerry and Hagel are strong personalities with good ties to the president, but they don’t have the ready access of those who work just down the hall from the Oval Office. They aren’t the ones who interact with the president in the side conversations, morning intelligence briefings, and other exchanges that occur through Obama’s day—and the nsc process has simply not been effective in offsetting that disparity of influence. Moreover, Kerry and Hagel are largely consumed with agendas that keep them away from the White House and primarily within the orbit of their agencies or on airplanes.
Henry Kissinger once told me that in the U.S. government, as in real estate, the same three things matter: “Location, location, and location.” This is truer than ever in this administration, where if your office is not in the complex at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, regardless of your title, you are often out of the loop.
As Obama’s bubble has gotten smaller, the president has reportedly become frustrated with criticism too, compounding his famous aloofness with a more defensive attitude. The most notable example of this unfolded during his Asia visit in April 2014—a trip made largely with the intent of communicating to regional leaders that the United States was not abandoning its international leadership role. In the Philippines, Obama described, with barely concealed anger, his approach to foreign policy as one of seeking modest outcomes: “You hit singles; you hit doubles,” he said—a far cry from his “audacity of hope” days and his speeches about transforming the world that marked his first year in office.
Immediately after this speech, he continued his explanation when he lectured the press corps aboard Air Force One. It was during this second unburdening that Obama sought to drive home the point that his mantra on international issues was, in his own words, “Don’t do stupid shit.” (An infelicitous turn of phrase, it has since engendered such a negative reaction, including criticism from Hillary Clinton, that it has itself become a prime example of doing stupid shit.) While the comment certainly had the effect of lowering expectations, it was also seen as a fit of pique and as further proof to the skeptical that this administration is content to sit on the world’s sidelines—despite allies asking, as one Middle Eastern leader put it, that the United States be “not a player, just a coach.”
More than at any time in the past, Obama’s administration has chosen, in a very deliberate way, to concentrate more power within the White House. Although the nsc has continuously increased in power since it was formed in 1947, under Obama its staff has grown to around 370 people, roughly 10 times the size it was during the 1970s and almost twice as large as it was during the early Bush years. (It grew in part because it absorbed Bush’s Homeland Security Council.) More importantly, the White House staff has taken the lead on key issues from the outset, so much so that many D.C.-based ambassadors now habitually bypass the State Department in order to speak to those in the West Wing or in the nsc offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
But even the bloated nsc staff is not big enough to replace the cabinet agencies it often edges out of the picture. And when it tries to be operational (witness Rice-led delegations to address the transition in Afghanistan or to negotiate with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), it eats into its ability to do its core jobs: coordinating the development and implementation of foreign policy and providing advice to the president.
As Obama’s bubble has gotten smaller, the president has reportedly become frustrated with criticism too, compounding his famous aloofness with a more defensive attitude.
This is a costly approach. Concentrating power in the White House increases the likelihood of groupthink, especially in second terms like this one, when many of the stronger and diverse voices in the administration have left and have not been replaced by equally strong and diverse successors. Groupthink in an environment in which the leader is a cautious lawyer and his closest aides have campaign histories can lead to an overly tactical approach to problems. And if there is one great void that has dogged this administration, particularly in its second term, it is in the area of strategy.
Part of the shift to White House centrism no doubt has to do with Obama’s personality—he can be cool, somewhat closed, and wary—and his history of managing the small staff of a senator. But some of it, as Obama’s former national security advisor, Tom Donilon, told me, has been deliberate. Donilon pointed out that when one wants to use all the tools in the administration’s toolbox, one needs to run things out of the nsc. Consequently, on many issues, foreign leaders want to know where the president stands and deal primarily with those perceived as close to him.
Although there is a certain logic to this, recent history suggests that the impulse needs to be held in check.
It is easy, and perhaps natural, to conclude that the president can do little to improve his performance. But that is not true. In fact, some useful insights into how to get the president’s national security act together come from what many in the White House—not to mention the general public—might see as the unlikeliest of sources: George W. Bush’s administration.
Admittedly, the idea that Bush finished strong in office is not part of the common narrative of a presidency much more defined by its actions in the wake of 9/11, the errors associated with the Iraq invasion, the rendition and torture of prisoners, Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and the related alienation of important allies worldwide. But during his second term, Bush and his team produced another, underappreciated story. On the national security and foreign policy side, this included the stabilization of Iraq via the surge, the introduction of the “light footprint” approaches to combating terrorism that were ultimately adopted by Obama (including the use of drones and special operations), the ramping-up of America’s cyber-capabilities and cyber-defenses, and the advancement of the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s work in Africa and of pepfar. There was also an important nuclear deal with India and stronger relations with Brazil, European allies, and moderate Arab states, among others. What’s more, Bush’s response to the financial crisis was courageous and made an enormous contribution to the speed with which the United States recovered, a speed much greater than in most other impacted countries, such as those of the European Union.
Several factors contributed to Bush’s second-term turnaround. One was simply the experience of being in office. But not only did Bush and his team grow more effective, they also became more adaptive to the world around them.
The 9/11 attacks were a shock. Perhaps for the first time in U.S. history, a conflict began not with a speech or a headline, but with a moving, horrifying, indelible image that virtually every individual in the United States saw. It was more than a visceral jolt or a trauma, however: It also presented Americans with the idea that there were new dangers in the world that the country was ill-prepared to face. “In the aftermath of 9/11, we were essentially just reacting,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told me in her Stanford University office after she ended her tenure in Foggy Bottom. “It took some time before we could stop, catch our breath, and make a critical reappraisal of what we were doing.”
if there is one great void that has dogged this administration, particularly in its second term, it is in the area of strategy.
Reflection eventually followed, including for principals such as Rice and Stephen Hadley, her deputy national security advisor during Bush’s first term who replaced her as national security advisor when she moved to the State Department. Hadley was deeply thoughtful and understood the nsc as well as anyone in Washington. Indicative of the evolution in his thinking—and that of the team—was a willingness to return to core assumptions. After his time at the White House, for example, Hadley told me, “Thinking back, I now wonder if our mistake may have been in not considering whether the reason Saddam Hussein was so secretive about his weapons of mass destruction capabilities was not because he had the weapons and wanted to conceal them, but because he did not have them and he wanted to hide that.”
“From the Iranians,” he posited. “From us.”
Beyond traveling up the learning curve of a new, challenging period in U.S. foreign policy, Bush realized his team needed to change and began making both subtle and significant changes. Rice went to Foggy Bottom, and immediately the relationship between the secretary of state and the national security advisor improved from the sometimes-difficult one that existed between Rice and Colin Powell in Bush’s first term.
“There’s no doubt that going to State with the experience of having been national security advisor and having seen some of the problems State had been having was an advantage,” Rice told me. “And it helped, of course, to have Steve Hadley at the nsc, who was a way better national security advisor than I was because he was the right personality for it. And I think I was the right personality to be secretary of state. I always laughingly say, ‘We finally got into the right positions.’”
Rice knew that there was another factor that would shape the new national security team: Bush himself. He was no longer a neophyte president. In Rice’s words, “The president had grown.”
She saw evidence of this particularly in his newfound ability to corral the Defense Department. He would “demand things from the Pentagon. He was so much more confident, for instance, in putting together the surge than he was in the questions he would ask of the military going into Iraq.” And as Bush took a firmer hand on Iraq policy, he gradually dialed back or offset the influence of his vice president, Dick Cheney (whom one senior Bush nsc official described as continuing to want to “keep breaking china”). At this point, according to Rice, Bush didn’t want to do anything militarily with North Korea or Iran. “He wanted to engage in diplomacy,” she said. “The president was in a different place.”
Rice is clearly protective of the former president, but many top officials, some of whom went on to serve Obama, support her viewpoint. So too do the actions of the administration: Other than the surge within Iraq, there were no new major confrontations during Bush’s second term, even in the face of provocations such as the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan or Russia’s 2008 aggression into Georgia. Wherever possible, diplomatic responses—or much more limited and, ideally, covert military responses—were sought. This established the trend of treading more lightly, which Obama seized upon and then, in the eyes of his critics, carried too far.
Bush also strengthened his team. He brought in a new White House chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, who helped the president secure a new treasury secretary, Henry Paulson, who was to play a central foreign policy role and take the lead on China matters. (Paulson would also have a vital leadership role during the financial crisis that followed.) Bolten was a master manager, experienced in the ways of the executive branch but also deft and content to remain behind the scenes guiding events with a firm but sensitive touch. The freelancing, ego-driven, creative but disruptive Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was gone by 2006, replaced by Robert Gates, one of the most respected professional national security civil servants the United States has produced in the past three decades. And though Cheney remained influential, Bush became more hands-on, and his new team was all the more dedicated to working with the formal national security process, not via backdoors as had been the wont of Cheney and Rumsfeld during Bush’s first term.
Some useful insights into how to get the president’s national security act together come from someone whom many might see as the unlikeliest of sources: George W. Bush.
Given Hadley’s decades of experience within and around the nsc apparatus, he had a clear philosophy of his job as national security advisor. The interagency process, he observed, was run in two ways. The domestic side, he said, was “very White House staff-focused.” The staff would talk with the president and then design policy initiatives. Once a policy “was essentially cooked or well along,” he said, the cabinet secretaries then joined to move forward on implementation.
Things were usually different on the national security side, where there was a more “principle-centric process” in developing policy “with the national security principals, the secretary of state, defense, you know, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, intelligence folks,” Hadley said. “And then collectively, we brought our recommendations and choices to the president.” (In an aside, Hadley said that in his view, the Obama administration often adopted the White House-driven domestic-policy approach for use on a wide range of national security and foreign policy issues.)
Noticeably, Bush changed course on key issues. Not only did he show courage on some of those changes—adding troops for the surge was hugely unpopular, for example—but he also showed a willingness to get personally involved to try to make things work. In some ways, this meant that he simply rolled up his sleeves and did the work of a manager. For example, he instituted weekly videoconferences with his team in Iraq, as well as regular exchanges with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
With benefit of hindsight, of course, the world now knows that the stabilization that occurred during the surge—and as a result of this period of attention—would not last and that Maliki was a slippery, dangerous character. But it is also clear that for the last two years of Bush’s tenure, Iraq perhaps achieved its post- invasion high point. It is telling to note that when asked whether Obama would maintain regular interactions with Maliki, one of his aides reportedly suggested the president was disinclined to engage in that kind of “micromanagement” of such situations.
Bush saw himself as the coach of his team, with an obligation to lead and personally connect with his cabinet. During tough moments, I was told, he would play a vital role bucking up spirits during cabinet or one-on-one meetings. One former top official who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations spoke of a moment when Bush put his hands on the shoulders of a cabinet member, particularly distraught during the financial crisis, and attempted to “talk him off the ledge.” This nonpartisan, experienced actor said, “If people could have seen those 20 minutes as I did, they would have thought they got their money’s worth from Bush as president.”
For Obama, much can clearly be learned from studying how Bush managed to remake his team, his own role, and his foreign policy in ways that, while not offsetting the errors of his first term, advanced U.S. interests substantially. The solution was not complicated: It necessitated a sound process, the right team, an engaged president, and a willingness to acknowledge errors and seek to correct them. It required a belief that management actually matters and that much could still get done in the administration’s last couple of years.
To be sure, Obama has shown that it is within him to implement at least some of these changes. During his first term, after a shaky start, Obama’s nsc process improved with the appointment of Donilon as national security advisor and McDonough as his deputy. The new team, with a respect for process discipline and a willingness to play a primarily behind-the-scenes role, enabled the president to more effectively engage a diverse, strong-minded group of national security principals. On critical issues, such as the bin Laden raid and dozens of other tactical decisions like it, the president played a strong leadership role and showed great character and courage. More recently, on matters like the National Security Agency scandal, Obama has begun to acknowledge and address some of his administration’s errors.
It isn’t too late for the president to build on these successes and undertake the broad reassessment that’s needed—and Americans can hope that his recent policy reversal that has led to limited intervention in Iraq may be a sign of a new willingness to do so. But challenges remain in the composition of his team; the structure of the administration; its risk-averseness and defensiveness; its tendency to be tactical and focused on the short term, rather than strategic in its approaches to problems; and the president’s seeming unwillingness to devote more of himself to working with peers worldwide to shape and lead action on many big issues.
In short, Obama needs to take a page out of his predecessor’s book—and where that change must begin is crisply suggested by the old joke: How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one. But the light bulb itself has to really want to change.