COLUMN

Shake It Up

Obama needs new blood in the White House.

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

History is likely to be much kinder to U.S. President Barack Obama than many of his former colleagues have been. On a wide range of domestic issues, he will win praise much like that already being doled out by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman in the current issue of Rolling Stone. As Krugman rightly observes, a great number of accomplishments — including overseeing efforts to bring the economy back from crisis, incomplete but nonetheless meaningful health care and financial services reforms, an extended period of job creation, the potential for real gain on environmental policy, and the good fortune associated with America’s energy boom — will lastingly be associated with this president. That said, it is impossible to overlook the fact that even a cheerleader like Krugman, who is on a dedicated mission to counter conventional wisdom about the beleaguered chief executive, seeks to make his best case by skimming over the issues of national security and foreign policy that are Obama’s most glaring and now almost universally acknowledged weaknesses.

Krugman, noting that he has no special expertise in the area of national security, goes on to prove it by characterizing Obama as a "normal post-Vietnam president." He rates the commander in chief high for not being Mitt Romney or John McCain and then characterizes him as run-of-the-mill for his policies of sometimes bombing bad guys and trying to stay out of war. And then, after three bland paragraphs, he moves on.

As Krugman knows well, however, in the modern world there is no way to disconnect the United States from the world around us, nor is there any way to unlink economic outcomes from political or security outcomes. Krugman fails to explore what risks to Obama’s domestic accomplishments might accrue as a consequence of his international failures and missteps and ignores any discussion of what vital international issues of great consequence to our economy the president has not effectively addressed — from reconstituting our relationship with China to addressing the risks associated with emerging threats to an increasingly Internet-based economy to modernizing and reinvigorating international institutions and alliances.

Krugman ignores the left’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy — which takes issue with his kill lists, serial violation of international sovereignty with drone attacks, policies that let the NSA run amok, failure to follow through on his promises on Guantánamo, failure to address immigration reform, failure to move the needle on international climate talks, and weak record of follow through on support for crises in the emerging world. He dismisses Romney and McCain, treating them as code words for what he seems to assume Rolling Stone readers will understand means warmongers. And this is despite the fact that a review by any fair-minded observer of Romney’s criticisms of Obama on Russia and fighting terror and Iraq policy or McCain’s on Syria or the Islamic State (IS) reveal them to be pretty much on target. (Come to think of it, so was candidate Hillary Clinton’s 3 a.m. phone call advertisement. When will Mark Penn and her campaign team get an apology for the criticism that rained down on them for that one?)

Krugman can’t have helped but notice that his effort to set the record straight on Obama’s domestic achievements has been overshadowed by yet another stinging critique of Obama from one of the most senior members of his own team, that of Leon Panetta, in his new book, Worthy Fights. Or that Panetta’s critique comes as part of an unprecedented outpouring of criticism of Obama from recently departed members of his own team. Not since the Nixon era have so many high-level members of a presidential administration taken shots at their ex-boss while he was still in office. Frankly, I’m not sure that the current backlash from former colleagues is not even greater than what Nixon got from ex-administration members.

Think of it: Panetta, Robert Gates, and Hillary Clinton, the core of Obama’s first-term national security team, have all offered stinging critiques of the president. Other senior officials, like former State Department officials Vali Nasr and Robert Ford, have done likewise. And in public and private settings you will hear other cabinet-level officials and flag officers leveling their own sharp criticisms. And the farther away you get from the White House and the closer you get to Foggy Bottom or the Pentagon, the louder and more pointed the second-guessing and expressions of frustration become.

In the wake of the Panetta critiques, the small wagon train of defenders circling the president urged former colleagues not to pile on or support Panetta’s message, and whispered about the former CIA director and defense secretary’s lack of loyalty. This was much the same technique they used when Gates’s book was published. But is it disloyal for these men who have devoted decades to public service and strengthening U.S. national security to offer perspectives that they think might help right the ship and set it on a better course? Or would it be more disloyal to be quiet? Saving their criticisms for after the president left office would not help him at all, would support the illusion that things were functioning better than they were, and would allow past errors to be compounded without challenge.

In fact, such criticisms have reached what is very nearly a nonpartisan consensus at the center of which is the growing feeling that major and meaningful change is required within the White House. Krugman, trained as an academic to be intellectually honest, to focus on the facts and admit that the good comes with the bad, should have been able to admit and articulate the idea that Obama could be a pretty good president on domestic policy issues and, thus far, a disappointment on foreign policy. David Ignatius, the widely respected Washington Post columnist and one who has reported fairly on both the ups and the downs of Obama’s international policies, acknowledged the degree to which change was needed in a column this week that hinted at the possibility of personnel moves on the national security side at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

While Ignatius did not name names, the implication was clear. The system was broken and for the president to regain his footing and have a chance at finishing his tenure with a better international performance, some key players would have to go. As Ignatius noted (and as I covered in my piece "National Insecurity" in the current issue of Foreign Policy and in my upcoming book of the same name), George W. Bush was able, despite a disastrous first term, to turn things around in his second term with a series of very significant adjustments to his team — and to his own approach to leading.

The Bush changes involved shifting Condoleezza Rice from the National Security Council to the State Department, promoting her deputy Stephen Hadley to be the new national security advisor, bringing in a top-notch White House chief of staff in Josh Bolten, handing the reins of China policy to a new treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, and, ultimately and importantly, replacing Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates and altering the role and level of influence of the vice president. Deputies and others departed the administration, but the point is that this was not window dressing. And it was accompanied by a willingness to embrace major changes in policy, from the surge in Iraq to a new approach to combatting terrorists in Afghanistan, from new engagement in the emerging world to an effort to restore relations with traditional allies.

Bush had to do it. Public confidence in his ability to manage foreign policy had plummeted — just as it has for Obama. But change for the sake of change is not enough. There have already been changes in this administration that have not produced a noticeable improvement in performance — at State, at Defense, at Chief of Staff. The question has to be asked: What will it take to make things better? Who must go?

Obama started out with an excellent team — Panetta, Gates, and Clinton were all part of it. He had great experience at his disposal and a wide range of views. He even had a process that ensured that everyone would be heard. Gen. Jim Jones and Tom Donilon, his first two national security advisors, worked to assure that. But as the indecision on Syria, on multiple Afghan reviews, on how to handle our presence in Iraq, and on countless other issues showed, there was a breakdown between generating good advice and acting on it. That breakdown can be attributed to two factors: the disproportionate influence of the people immediately around the president, the so-called bubble, and the president himself.

The first changes in this term — replacing Clinton with Kerry, Gates with Hagel, and moving John Brennan to the CIA — did not address this problem. It was not the fault of these players. Rather, not only had the range of views in the administration diminished, but many personnel decisions actually strengthened the influence of those in the Obama White House’s national security bubble — former campaign advisors, for the most part. One former Obama top official told me that, "To an extent I have seldom seen before, they never left campaign mode. For the inner circle, it was always about him, about advancing the brand and about protecting him." Another characterized those who were and are the problem as "the true believers."

The other clear problem is that the national security process, which sometimes spluttered but often worked fairly well during the first term, has completely broken down since. Tension with cabinet agencies like State and Defense is high; coordination has suffered, with mixed messages coming from State and the White House on issues from Egypt to Israel to the response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. On multiple issues the process just did not produce the necessary responsiveness, decisiveness, or good policy outcomes — from last year’s red-line debacle in Syria to failing to spot or address the rise of IS, from lack of follow through in now-decaying Libya to ineffective coalition management in Europe versus Putin or, for example, in the cases of Turkey or Qatar in the Middle East. Some initiatives — going after Joseph Kony or trying to help the 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls or targeting a handful of top Putin aids — have been empty gestures just for show. Some efforts, like touting the deal for Bowe Bergdahl or managing the NSA scandal with allies, have been fiascoes, self-inflicted wounds.

Relations with allies are at a low and rivals from Putin to Assad are in many ways stronger than before. We had an Africa Summit in August and yet failed to take sufficient early steps to address the Ebola crisis. Important first-term initiatives like prioritizing the relationships with China and our Asian allies have been frittered away. On the communications side, going from "hitting singles and doubles" to not "doing stupid shit" to admitting to not having a strategy in the Middle East has amounted only to more self-inflicted wounds. And perhaps most damning, not only did we not have a strategy in the Middle East, we still don’t. In fact, we are purely reactive now, purely tactical on almost every major front. This administration is actually disturbingly nonstrategic, with little vision for America’s role in the world going forward or how we would best like to pursue our national interests internationally to ensure peace and prosperity at home.

All this suggests that to produce real change, those at the core of the bubble and those responsible for the failed process should go. There are rumors that the dedicated and capable Denis McDonough might leave as White House chief of staff after the election. He has served the president diligently and, for the most part, well. But he has been an important part of that inner circle from the beginning and getting someone new in this vital job, someone who will challenge the president and run the process, would be a good idea. Many problems are associated not just with individuals, but with the cocktail of personalities that make up the core team. The wrong mix will amplify certain tendencies, promote groupthink, or become defensive, seeing the world in "us vs. them" terms. Thus, while I don’t want to be perceived as calling for McDonough to go, a change at his level could be helpful.

If the president wants to fix a broken national security apparatus, however, he will have to consider a change at the top of the NSC. Susan Rice has also served the president from the earliest days of his campaign and has been a smart and capable aide. She was also unfairly attacked by partisans over Benghazi and the president loyally and admirably stood by her. But there is no denying that she has presided over the NSC during one of its roughest patches in modern memory and that some of the responsibility for the problems it incurred must rest with her. She is part of the problem with relations with other departments, with key allies, and she is not seen as the kind of disinterested "honest broker" a national security advisor should be. Rice is also decidedly not strategic, and a different national security advisor who could better emulate the model set by successful predecessors like Gen. Brent Scowcroft on both fronts would be welcome.

Alternatively, the president needs to sit down with Rice and lay out a clear set of priorities for fixing what is broken in the White House system that addresses these problems. Perhaps other high-level adjustments to personnel could assist with this. In any event, defensively sticking with the status quo will send a message to the world that Obama does not recognize his errors or is unwilling to acknowledge them, which will not only exacerbate the problems but effectively marginalize him for the remainder of his term.

With that in mind, regardless of what Obama does on the personnel front, one more change is critical. That one is not just internal to the White House. It is internal to the president. Not only does he have to admit he has a problem that needs to change, he has to admit he’s part of that problem. He’s had very strong advisors and produced weak results in the past. That drives home a critical message. The trick is not just getting a team and a process together that could produce good advice…. The trick is actually taking the best of the advice and translating it into the right decisions. For that, only one person in the U.S. government is ultimately responsible. And he is the one person who cannot lose his job or see his role diminished in a White House shuffle. He’ll be there, right where he is in that Oval Office, for better or for worse, until January 2017.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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