Best Defense

Chickens coming home to roost: What Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes hath wrought at the Obama White House

Thinking last night about how Trump is picking especially generals dissed by the Obama White House, it occurred to me that what we might be seeing is a national security establishment built in precise reaction to Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes.

President Barack Obama meets with staff in the Oval Office, prior to his meeting with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., July 28, 2010. Pictured, from left, are  Louisa Terrell, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Phil Schiliro, assistant to the President for legislative affairs, and Brian McKeon. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
President Barack Obama meets with staff in the Oval Office, prior to his meeting with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., July 28, 2010. Pictured, from left, are Louisa Terrell, Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Phil Schiliro, assistant to the President for legislative affairs, and Brian McKeon. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

Thinking last night about how Donald Trump is especially picking generals dissed by the Barack Obama White House, it occurred to me that what we might be seeing is a national security establishment built in precise reaction to Tom Donilon and Ben Rhodes. I am sure they are nice guys, but they also strike me as a semi-competent hack (Donilon) and an arrogant youth (Rhodes). And so we are seeing a bevy of ousted generals appointed to top positions as the Trumpist response.

I don’t really blame this on Donilon and Rhodes. They were simply tools. I blame this on Obama, and on his propensity to turn foreign policy over to Biden’s posse of ill-informed, narrow-minded, militarily ignorant hacks. I’m all for civilian control, but I also want civilians who don’t fire generals for speaking their minds privately. That’s what you want: dissent inside the meetings to explore differences and examine assumptions. That is how good policy is made.

I confess that the 1930s have been on my mind a lot this week. While writing my current book, on Winston Churchill and George Orwell, I have been wondering how people could have been so stupid as to appease Hitler or to cozy up to Stalin.

Yet here I find myself this week having serious talks with friends who have been approached to work for Trump in national security positions. (Apparently you have to swear that you didn’t sign a “Never Trump” letter, and also maybe promise not to spill beans after you leave.) It’s a surprisingly hard decision. They have friends who are still in uniform and can’t just leave the military. What do you do? You can’t just abandon the people who are stuck.

Even worse are people in the government who would like to leave but feel they can’t, with mortgages pending in Fairfax or Annapolis and kids in college. As one guy wrote to me this week, “I am sorry but I can’t afford to live up to my principles.” What a soul-crushing thought.

No, these guys didn’t create the election results. But they did line up the generals that Trump is now lunching with. See those birds? That’s chickens coming home to roost.

Photo credits: White House/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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