David Rothkopf

A brewing storm in the national security team?

The Huffington Post is currently running a speculative article  suggesting that there is a rift between the White House and military leaders over Libya policy. The divide is attributed to a "culture clash." It goes on to suggest that the situation is likely to get worse with the impending departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates ...

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The Huffington Post is currently running a speculative article  suggesting that there is a rift between the White House and military leaders over Libya policy. The divide is attributed to a "culture clash." It goes on to suggest that the situation is likely to get worse with the impending departure of Defense Secretary Robert Gates who it suggests has effectively "refereed" the relationship between the brass and the pols at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The story cites unnamed sources and so it is hard to judge its accuracy. That said, I had three immediate reactions when I read it. First, it was consistent with reports I have had from both military leaders with whom I have spoken and with people inside the national security team. Second, it is hardly unusual for such clashes to exist within administrations involved in one war — particularly a controversial one. So for it to be the case within an administration involved in three wars should hardly be a shocker. The situation is a problem if it impact operations to the point of dysfunction.

Which brings me to the third point. However, bad it is now, my sense it is going to get worse before it gets better. Because once Gates goes, not only will he be missed as a "referee" but he will be missed as a critical ally of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The two have formed an important alliance which has frequently offset those within the White House and elsewhere in the administration who are either more purely political in their calculations or who are more instinctively less comfortable with or trustful of the military.

While the president has formed a solid working relationship with Clinton, many close to him from his campaign days remain skeptical of her and considerable tension remains between the two camps — despite the endless denials that friction exists. In fact, multiple sources within the State Department have speculated to me recently that they feel that one of the reasons she has dropped hints about her departure at or near the end of this term and that she has been so actively on the road is because she is simply fed up with the struggle.

Now, of course, such tensions are also fairly common so they don’t reflect particularly badly on this administration and, needless to say, there is certainly no harm in a Secretary of State being out and about in the world — especially such an effective one. And Clinton is widely seen around the world as the most formidable U.S. Secretary of State since James Baker even with knowledge of her strained relationship with the White House being pretty widespread. After all, not only did she enter the office with a very high profile and not only has she carried herself in the office with great assurance, but she is accurately seen as the most important political figure in the Democratic Party other than the president.

But it is quite possible that with Gates gone, her departure a foregone conclusion and some of those who have distrusted her something of a de facto ascendancy that tension between the White House and the most senior cabinet officer could grow. This would be unfortunate because with Gates gone, Obama would need Clinton’s sound counsel more than ever, especially if the Defense job goes to someone from inside the administration meaning that the chorus of voices he will be hearing from top advisors will not change or be otherwise altered appreciably. Given the current swirl of rumors that Leon Panetta might get the job — which is not a bad choice, Panetta is smart, competent, trusted by the president and a master of the budget which will be key in the next person to preside at the Pentagon — this inside reshuffling scenario seems plausible.

Another factor that could add to the turbulence would be the consequences of the growing perception that Clinton is a lame duck. Already candidates for her job are circling in the waters. One group, with advocates including prominent White House advisors like Valerie Jarrett, favors current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for the job and and Rice is known to want it. Another favors Sen. John Kerry. But the point is that at a moment at which America’s foreign policy challenges are extraordinarily diverse and daunting, there appear to be worrisome fissures and potential fissures in the president’s national security team.

It will fall to the president to get back in touch with his "no drama" roots and live up to his "team of rivals" promises (remember those?) in order to enable his team to take advantage of their growing experience and have the benefit of the full range of very important perspectives that are certain to come both from the top ranks of the military brass and from his most valuable cabinet member and those close to her.

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