The Case for Intervention…

In Obama's dysfunctional foreign-policy team.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images
Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Read a response to this column here.

Read a response to this column here.

Last chance! On Monday, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off on foreign policy. It will be the final debate and President Obama’s last major opportunity to convince American voters to give him four more years.

He may not have an easy time of it. In 2008, Obama’s principled positions on the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and interrogation policy helped motivate the Democratic base and send him to the White House with a decisive victory. But that was then. Now, Obama’s approval ratings have plummeted, both domestically and internationally. For most of his first term, they have been well below the historical average for first-term presidents.

Despite some successes large and small, Obama’s foreign policy has disappointed many who initially supported him. The Middle East initiatives heralded in his 2009 Cairo speech fizzled or never got started at all, and the Middle East today is more volatile than ever. The administration’s response to the escalating violence in Syria has consisted mostly of anxious thumb-twiddling. The Israelis and the Palestinians are both furious at us. In Afghanistan, Obama lost faith in his own strategy: he never fought to fully resource it, and now we’re searching for a way to leave without condemning the Afghans to endless civil war. In Pakistan, years of throwing money in the military’s direction have bought little cooperation and less love.

The Russians want to reset the reset, neither the Chinese nor anyone else can figure out what, if anything, the "pivot to Asia" really means, and Latin America and Africa continue to be mostly ignored, along with global issues such as climate change. Meanwhile, the administration’s expanding drone campaign suggests a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings — we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.

Could Obama have done better?

In foreign policy as in life, stuff happens — including bad stuff no one could have predicted. Nonetheless, to a significant extent, President Obama is the author of his own lackluster foreign policy. He was a visionary candidate, but as president, he has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture — one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks. His national security staff is squabbling and demoralized, and though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If Obama wants to fix his broken foreign policy machine, he can do it — but conversations with numerous insiders, as well as my own government experiences, suggest that he needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.

Not sexy, I know. But just as a start-up company needs more than an entrepreneurial founder with a couple of good ideas and a nifty PowerPoint presentation, the United States needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.

Here’s what President Obama needs to do:

1. Get a Strategy. No, really. We don’t currently seem to have one, grand or otherwise. We’ve got "the long war" — but we don’t seem to have a long game. Instead of a strategy, we have aspirations ("We want a stable Middle East") and we have laundry lists (check out the 2010 National Security Strategy). But as I have written in a previous column, there’s no clear sense of what animates our foreign policy. And without a clear strategic vision of the world, there’s no way to evaluate the success or failure of different initiatives, and no way to distinguish the important from the marginal.

What does President Obama see as the one or two gravest threats to the United States? What are our one or two biggest opportunities? Is terrorism an existential threat to the United States, or a marginal threat, overshadowed by the long-term dangers posed by climate change, pandemics, and a highly manipulable global financial system? Should we focus on increasing ties in Asia, or focus on our neighbors in Central and South America? Is the United States trying to maintain global preeminence, even if it comes at the expense of other states — or are we trying to foster a global order in which the United States is but one of many strong countries, all constrained by a robust international network of laws and institutions?

If President Obama lacks a clear strategic foreign policy vision, it’s partly because the strategic planning shops within the White House’s National Security Staff (NSS) and the State Department have been marginalized and disempowered. Within the NSS, the Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop, without the clout to bring senior officials to the table for longer-term strategy discussions. At the State Department, the Policy Planning office — once run by such legendary figures as George Kennan and Paul Nitze — was handed off, after Anne-Marie Slaughter’s departure, to a young lawyer whose credentials include ample brains and a stint as a Clinton campaign aide, but no prior foreign policy experience.

If President Obama ekes out a victory on November 6, he should take a strategic pause. He should ensure that influential and credible people are appointed to lead the various strategic planning shops, and insist that his senior officials participate in a process to develop a clear, concise and articulable strategy, one that can guide future U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions.

2. Get some decent managers. The interagency process is in a state of permanent crisis. The schedules of senior officials are constantly disrupted by pop-up Deputies Committee meetings, often called on short notice, with minimal time for preparation and thought. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly scheduled more than 700 Deputies Committee meetings and 200 Principal’s Committee meetings between January 2009 and October 2011. Meetings occur at all times of the day and the week, with little prioritization, causing burn-out for exhausted staffers (and reducing institutional memory when the burned out staffers quit after a year or two). Often, the constant meetings produce only inconclusive results. As a friend once put it to me, "It’s all churn, no butter."

And although the National Security Staff lacks the personnel or the depth of experience and expertise to be the primary font of policy, the NSS appears to view the Cabinet-level departments and agencies as mere implementers of policies created by the White House, rather than as sources of ideas and expertise. As a result, the schedule and agenda for senior level-discussions is driven almost entirely by a small number of NSS staff, making it difficult for other issues and perspectives to be brought to the fore.

It doesn’t need to be that way. President Obama should find some decent managers to run the NSS — honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results.

3. Get some people who actually know something. President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.

Cronyism also reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings: increasingly, insiders say, meetings called by top NSS officials involve by-name requests for attendance, with no substitutions or "plus ones" permitted. As a result, dissenting voices are shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights. The result? Shallow discussions and poor decisions.

Here again, President Obama could easily make some useful changes. Why not appoint a commission of experienced former officials from past administrations to work with current officials on developing job descriptions for key positions — and then insist that mid- and high-level political appointments be justified to the commission? This doesn’t prevent the president or other senior officials from bringing in people they know and trust, but it could help ensure that those appointed have at least some minimal qualifications. What’s more, President Obama should send his staff a clear message that cliques belong in junior high school, not in the White House. Permitting senior staff to exclude everyone but their favorites from meetings guarantees uninformed group-think.

4. Get out of the bubble. The National Security Staff operates as a tiny fiefdom. Many NSS senior directors say they speak with Tom Donilon only once or twice a year. Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes function as gate-keepers, and even Cabinet-level officials often struggle to get direct access to the president. Some gate-keeping is necessary, of course, but this president lives in as much of an echo chamber as George W. Bush did. Add to this President Obama’s even more infrequent contact with the press and his infrequent meetings with members of Congress, and you end up with debate performances like the one the president gave on October 3, in which he seemed surprised and irritated at being challenged in public.

Getting out of his bubble may not come naturally for Obama. As Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, put it in an unguarded moment, "The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people." [Ed. note: Tanden later clarified her words, tweeting "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize.]

But if he wants good, candid feedback, President Obama needs to deal with more people. He should increase the number of press conferences he gives, increase the number of formal and informal meetings with members of Congress, and institute at least quarterly town-hall style meetings with his national security staff — invited based on position, not based on whether they’re in the in-club — and with other senior staff from State, Defense, and AID. He should also create internal "red teams," tasked with pointing out the dangers and flaws of the policy approaches recommended by his senior staff — and he should require his staff to listen and respond to critics, instead of just repeating administration talking points.

5. Get a backbone. President Obama has sound moral instincts, but he often backs away from them at the first sign of resistance. He came into office with a mandate and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. Had he been willing to use some political capital — and twist a few arms on the Hill — in those early months, Guantanamo would be closed, and the United States might have a more coherent approach to national security budgeting. But on these and other issues, the president backed off at the first sign of congressional resistance, apparently deciding (presumably on the advice of the campaign aides who already populated his national security staff) that these issues were political losers.

Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy; the issues became losers because the White House abandoned them. Ultimately, Congress began to view him as weak: a man who wouldn’t push them very hard. As a result, Congress pushed back hard on everything, including health care, economic stimulus, and regulation of the financial industry, and Obama was forced to live with watered-down legislation across the board.

If he gets a second term, Obama needs to start thinking about his legacy, and that will require him to fight for his principles, not abandon them. Even if he fights, he won’t win every battle — but if he doesn’t fight, he won’t win any.

6. Get rid of the jerks. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama famously had a "no assholes" rule, and his staff was legendary for its lack of infighting and drama. Somehow, though, he’s managed to populate his national security staff with a fair number of people who seem unable to get along with each other. Insiders say that McDonough and Donilon can barely stand each other, contradicting each other publicly so often that no one’s ever sure who really speaks for the president. Both men are also famously rude to colleagues: it’s a rare individual who hasn’t been screamed at by one or the other. The nastiness demoralizes everyone and sends the message that rudeness and infighting are acceptable.

That’s no way to run a railroad. It drives away those not fond of public excoriation or back-stabbing and reduces those who remain to sniveling yes-men. Obama needs to reinstate the "no assholes" rule, hold his senior staff to standards of civilized behavior, and get rid of those who won’t change. It’s not impossible: the Pentagon under Robert Gates was a remarkably civilized place. As the military knows, command climate matters. The command climate at the NSS is one in which rudeness is tolerated. It shouldn’t be.

President Obama came into office with so much good will — from his own staff, from the American people, and from the world. But through his own unforced errors, he’s lost much of that goodwill. To some extent, his errors are errors of inexperience: Obama simply undervalued issues of strategy, structure, process, and personnel. These are understandable mistakes for a first-term president with little prior government experience (or management experience, for that matter). But such errors will be far less excusable if Obama gets a second term. If American voters give Obama four more years, he needs to push the foreign policy "reset" button.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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