Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The narrowness of Obama’s national security team is making me nervous

The more I study President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, the more nervous I get about the Obama Administration. I am still thinking this through, but when I read the history of LBJ and Vietnam, I see him looking at the world through congressional glasses. He seems to thinks that Hanoi is like the ...

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The more I study President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, the more nervous I get about the Obama Administration.

I am still thinking this through, but when I read the history of LBJ and Vietnam, I see him looking at the world through congressional glasses. He seems to thinks that Hanoi is like the opposition in the Senate, something to be cajoled and manipulated. He does not realize he is fighting a limited war but that his Vietnamese enemy is not, and that the Communist leadership really thinks and lives outside his known world. They are not into "signals."

I don’t think President Obama is excessively congressional in his outlook. But I fear Vice President Biden is. What’s more, they’ve compounded the error by stocking the White House staff with like-minded people, such as a national security advisor who was a lobbyist and a deputy national security advisor who was a Hill staffer. That comes on top of a president, a vice president and a secretary of State who all came directly from the Senate. That is a very narrow, very peculiar range of experience to bring to the task of dealing with the world out there, especially as Congress has been unusually weak in national security over the last 15 years, to the point that if often has been irrelevant to the discussion. I can’t think of a national security team with a background as narrow as this one. Why put on blinders voluntarily? Whatever happened to the "Team of Rivals" concept? How about mixing in some academic knowledge, military experience, journalistic savvy, or business acumen? And if they are so good on the politics of it, which is the one thing they should be, how could they screw up Guantanamo so badly? And why have they left a dysfunctional team in place in Afghanistan?

In addition, Hill staffers who move into the executive branch tend to worry me a bit. I remember covering Les Aspin as a defense secretary and being surprised at how little he really knew about how the military operated, especially beyond the Pentagon. I think former Hill people often focus too much on Congress, and sometimes defer to it in a way that I suspect is inconsistent with the Founding Fathers’ intent in creating an adversarial system of competing branches of government. In addition, I suspect that some former Hill staffers retain the habit of excessive deference to the boss, when sometimes the job for the head of an executive agency is privately telling the boss he is wrong before he goes public with it. Exhibit A is George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who gave his president too much of what that president wanted and too little of what he needed.

Most of all, the congressional mentality sees little danger in inaction. On Capitol Hill, there’s always the next term. That’s not the case in foreign policy, where opportunities slip away never to return. Lost time is not found again. I think Obama handled Egypt well, but he didn’t have to do much there except speak well, which he does consistently. On Libya, though, dithering is dangerous. If you wait for an international consensus to emerge, it probably won’t. I am not saying we should do a no-fly zone. I am saying there are many other steps we could take, as I have written about before

If we have a foreign policy disaster on Obama’s watch, I think historians will zero in on the dangerous lack of diversity in the backgrounds and viewpoints of his key national security advisors. I wonder how Samantha Power, the former journalist who is the NSC’s director for multilateral affairs and human rights, stands it.

So, while I haven’t turned in my Obama fan card yet, I am not sure I am gonna renew it.

The more I study President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, the more nervous I get about the Obama Administration.

I am still thinking this through, but when I read the history of LBJ and Vietnam, I see him looking at the world through congressional glasses. He seems to thinks that Hanoi is like the opposition in the Senate, something to be cajoled and manipulated. He does not realize he is fighting a limited war but that his Vietnamese enemy is not, and that the Communist leadership really thinks and lives outside his known world. They are not into "signals."

I don’t think President Obama is excessively congressional in his outlook. But I fear Vice President Biden is. What’s more, they’ve compounded the error by stocking the White House staff with like-minded people, such as a national security advisor who was a lobbyist and a deputy national security advisor who was a Hill staffer. That comes on top of a president, a vice president and a secretary of State who all came directly from the Senate. That is a very narrow, very peculiar range of experience to bring to the task of dealing with the world out there, especially as Congress has been unusually weak in national security over the last 15 years, to the point that if often has been irrelevant to the discussion. I can’t think of a national security team with a background as narrow as this one. Why put on blinders voluntarily? Whatever happened to the "Team of Rivals" concept? How about mixing in some academic knowledge, military experience, journalistic savvy, or business acumen? And if they are so good on the politics of it, which is the one thing they should be, how could they screw up Guantanamo so badly? And why have they left a dysfunctional team in place in Afghanistan?

In addition, Hill staffers who move into the executive branch tend to worry me a bit. I remember covering Les Aspin as a defense secretary and being surprised at how little he really knew about how the military operated, especially beyond the Pentagon. I think former Hill people often focus too much on Congress, and sometimes defer to it in a way that I suspect is inconsistent with the Founding Fathers’ intent in creating an adversarial system of competing branches of government. In addition, I suspect that some former Hill staffers retain the habit of excessive deference to the boss, when sometimes the job for the head of an executive agency is privately telling the boss he is wrong before he goes public with it. Exhibit A is George "Slam Dunk" Tenet, who gave his president too much of what that president wanted and too little of what he needed.

Most of all, the congressional mentality sees little danger in inaction. On Capitol Hill, there’s always the next term. That’s not the case in foreign policy, where opportunities slip away never to return. Lost time is not found again. I think Obama handled Egypt well, but he didn’t have to do much there except speak well, which he does consistently. On Libya, though, dithering is dangerous. If you wait for an international consensus to emerge, it probably won’t. I am not saying we should do a no-fly zone. I am saying there are many other steps we could take, as I have written about before

If we have a foreign policy disaster on Obama’s watch, I think historians will zero in on the dangerous lack of diversity in the backgrounds and viewpoints of his key national security advisors. I wonder how Samantha Power, the former journalist who is the NSC’s director for multilateral affairs and human rights, stands it.

So, while I haven’t turned in my Obama fan card yet, I am not sure I am gonna renew it.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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