Shadow Government

Has Obama succumbed to groupthink?

Is President Obama willing to hear from people who disagree with him? Is he capable of recognizing any merits in arguments from those on the other side? His most loyal staff assure us that he is, but the public record keeps piling up evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is time for the president to ...

Pete Souza/White House
Pete Souza/White House

Is President Obama willing to hear from people who disagree with him? Is he capable of recognizing any merits in arguments from those on the other side? His most loyal staff assure us that he is, but the public record keeps piling up evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is time for the president to consider some extra steps to ensure he is not trapped inside a bubble of groupthink.

When then-Senator Obama was first gaining prominence on the national stage, a friend of mine who had worked with him over many years assured me that Obama was particularly gifted at the art of "understanding the other." Obama, I was told, naturally, even reflexively, appreciated the arguments of all sides and was skilled at finding common ground — finding the synthesis that did not do violence to either the thesis or the antithesis. Ever since my friend painted that portrait, I have been waiting for that Obama to show up in the Oval Office.

If that Obama exists, he did not seem to play much of a role in the inaugural speech-writing process. As Michael Gerson observed, Obama’s second inaugural address was a "raging bonfire of straw men." For those of us hoping to recapture some of the consolations of pride-in and hope-for our American system that sustained us four years ago, this second inaugural had precious little to offer.

It is one thing to engage in such systematic distortion during a bitter electoral campaign. It is another thing to let it permeate through all of the presidential rhetoric, including speeches usually reserved for appeals to unity and common purpose.

Yet it is a third, and more worrying thing, if that same dysfunction distorts the advisory process.  In that regard, Tom Ricks’ reporting (here and here) on the treatment given General Mattis, the CENTCOM Commander, is especially disturbing. Ricks alleges that the White House hurried General Mattis into retirement because they resented the way he was asking probing questions that pointed to deficiencies in current policy.

Of course, it is the President’s right to pick the advisors he wants, but shouldn’t the President want to have advisors that ask tough, probing questions that flag deficiencies in current policy?

For the record, an Obama spokesman denied that Mattis was being moved along because of the way he provided advice, but even Ricks, a reliable Obama supporter, did not find the denial very convincing. There have been too many of these reports to dismiss this concern with a "nothing to see here" rebuttal: cf., Michael Gordon’s account of how the White House sought to stifle military advice it did not want to hear; Rosa Brook’s insider account, augmented by extensive additional reports, of a dysfunctional decisionmaking system that muzzled advisors; or then NSA-Jim Jones’ infamous "whisky, tango, foxtrot" moment in Afghanistan when he apparently told the Marines not to request additional resources lest their request anger the President.

When I joined the Bush administration early in his second term, I joined a team that was similarly criticized as being "in a bubble" and incapable of understanding contrary viewpoints.  Like Obama’s current staffers, I could attest that that was not the system I saw from the inside.  But unlike Obama’s current staffers (so far as I can determine), we went beyond looking around the table and reassuring ourselves that we were each very reasonable fellows, fully open to new ideas. We put in place a series of informal institutions and procedures that brought us and White House principals, especially the president, into direct contact with the opposing views — on paper and, crucially, in person. These ranged from academics (historians, political scientists, economists, etc.) to think-tank experts to key Democratic foreign policy advisors. Perhaps we should have done more of that than we did, and earlier, but I am pretty sure we did more of that than the Obama team has done thus far.

I do not doubt that Team Obama reads opinion pieces drafted by people who disagree with them.  But do they engage those people in candid conversation and debate? Do they ensure that the president meets and converses with people who disagree with him? And are those people only critics from the left, or does he also regularly interact in a substantive way with critics from the right?

Perhaps it would be too disorienting at first to reach all the way across the aisle actually to engage the loyal opposition. An easier, but still worthwhile, step would be to reach out to avid supporters who nevertheless see some of the same things that are so obvious to folks on the other side. I am thinking here of Tom Ricks, mentioned above. Or what about other long-time Obama boosters like David Ignatius, who has called Obama "missing in action", and criticized Obama’s "passivity" on Syria, and found the Inaugural Address "partisan" and "empty"? Or even Foreign Policy’s own Dear Leader, David Rothkopf, who called Obama out for being a "lousy manager"?

Such interlocutors would be sure to sweeten the pill of truth-telling with ritual denunciations of the Bush era. But by drawing attention to Obama’s own record, they might help the administration deal more honestly with the debate they face today. And they might even prepare the way for honest conversation across the spectrum of foreign policy views.

I think if Obama actually talked with people who disagreed with him, he would find it harder to sustain the straw-man caricatures of their views. Perhaps he would still end up policy-wise where he is today, but he would make more compelling arguments for those policies. He might even persuade some people he is right. It is a risk worth taking.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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