Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

National security policymaking in the White House ain’t easy — for anyone

Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House. The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.

The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:

On the one hand, a senior Obama official claims that the focus of the administration in the first year was fixing a broken system that allowed Vice President Cheney to circumvent the bureaucracy; money quote, "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."  On the other hand, my FP colleague David Rothkopf is quoted in the story as noting that: "Fairly or not, [NSC Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough has been perceived as representing a process that was taking place in another room, among the inner circle, at a table to which most weren't invited." McDonough is technically junior to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, but is widely viewed as much closer to the President and, as one official put it, "Instead of Jim Jones telling McDonough what the president thinks, it is the other way round." On the one hand, a senior Obama official praises the process and Obama's due diligence: "When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment." On the other hand, the article reports a very different process for Obama's signature foreign policy priority of last Spring, the confrontation with Israel over the settlements issue: "In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama's demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama" I cannot recall a similar foreign policy issue that was handled in this fashion in the Bush era and, as a general matter, Karl Rove (Axelrod's Bush-era counterpart) played a far less prominent role on national security.

Financial Times reporter Edward Luce has a fascinating follow-up to his earlier story about foreign policy decision-making in the Obama White House.

The general theme is familiar: President Obama dominates his foreign policy apparatus and serves as his own grand strategist. What I found interesting was the way the not-for-attribution quotes praising the process seemed to be contradicted by the other reporting in the story. To wit:

  • On the one hand, a senior Obama official claims that the focus of the administration in the first year was fixing a broken system that allowed Vice President Cheney to circumvent the bureaucracy; money quote, "By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions."  On the other hand, my FP colleague David Rothkopf is quoted in the story as noting that: "Fairly or not, [NSC Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough has been perceived as representing a process that was taking place in another room, among the inner circle, at a table to which most weren’t invited." McDonough is technically junior to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, but is widely viewed as much closer to the President and, as one official put it, "Instead of Jim Jones telling McDonough what the president thinks, it is the other way round."
  • On the one hand, a senior Obama official praises the process and Obama’s due diligence: "When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment." On the other hand, the article reports a very different process for Obama’s signature foreign policy priority of last Spring, the confrontation with Israel over the settlements issue: "In a heated showdown in the Oval Office last May, in which Mr Netanyahu refused to accede to Mr Obama’s demand, the only officials present were Mr Emanuel and David Axelrod, senior adviser to Mr Obama in office and during the campaign. Gen Jones was not there. The fallout put the talks in abeyance and damped high Arab hopes for Mr Obama" I cannot recall a similar foreign policy issue that was handled in this fashion in the Bush era and, as a general matter, Karl Rove (Axelrod’s Bush-era counterpart) played a far less prominent role on national security.

I was especially drawn to one further point in the story, a point that has not been contradicted in anything I have read or seen first-hand: the pace is grueling and it takes a personal toll on the national security and White House staff. This is not unique to the Obama administration and is something of a hardy perennial in Washington. The 9/11 attacks were a turning point, however, and the system has run at breakneck speed ever since. Even though President Obama has been more focused on domestic policy over the last year, the pace for the national security staff has not eased.  

A recent trip to Washington with the dual purpose of attending a reception honoring my former boss, Steve Hadley, and separately meeting with current national security officials put this issue in sharp relief for me. My friends from the Bush era, looking much better rested and healthier than I remember them appearing before, swapped stories of our time in the fox-hole. And my friends from the Obama era shared eerily similar stories with some of the very same complaints: outsiders just don’t get it or get distracted by secondary trivialities. One current insider confided to me that when he reads outsider critiques of the Obama team, he is reminded of similar critiques he offered of the Bush team when he was in the shadow government. He thought some of my own analysis missed the boat and conceded that perhaps the same was true for some his earlier analysis of Bush decisionmaking.

That is a wise cautionary to remember. Those of us in the loyal opposition may have a better understanding than most about the travails and triumphs of the current team, but our perspective is limited. We should not be surprised to read internally contradictory accounts of what is going on behind the scenes. And we should be willing to give the benefit of the doubt from time to time.  

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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