A Withering Critique of Obama’s National Security Council
By Jeffrey Goldberg
November 14, 2014
If George W. Bush’s foreign policy was a testament to the perils of overreaction, Barack Obama’s foreign policy is becoming, to many experts, a testament to the dangers of underreaction. On the matter of Syria, in particular, fear of renewed U.S. involvement in the problems of dysfunctional Arab countries (a legitimate fear, of course) kept the Obama administration from trying to shape the Syrian opposition, and therefore the outcome of that country’s ruinous civil war. The Syrian war is not Obama’s fault (people in Washington have a tendency to think that Washington matters more than it does, and they also have a tendency to avoid holding Arab countries accountable for their own disasters), and he has had his victories in Syria—most notably, the removal of most of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile. But Syria is a catastrophe, and our Syria policy is a hash, and the U.S. is not winning its struggle against ISIS, and is no longer much interested in removing Assad from power.
Our own policy dysfunctions matter a great deal in all of this, David Rothkopf argues in his latest book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear. Rothkopf, the preeminent historian and analyst of the crucially important and usually misunderstood National Security Council (NSC), argues that, “It is not strategy to simply undo the mistakes of the recent past.” (This is a corollary to an observation Hillary Clinton made not long ago about Obama administration foreign policy.)
Rothkopf was an acidic critic of the Obama administration’s policy-formulation process long before such criticism became the thing that one does in Washington. Writing in the Financial Times, Edward Luce says that Rothkopf’s new work “could lay claim to being the definitive book on how 9/11 affected US foreign policy.”
I interviewed Rothkopf recently about his beliefs and findings. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You’re an expert on the organization and purpose of the NSC. Why are most national security advisors—Brent Scowcroft being one obvious exception—perceived to be failures? Susan Rice is in the barrel right now, but she’s not the first.
David Rothkopf: I’m not sure I agree with that characterization. While the job is tough and a clear lightning rod for criticism given its importance, proximity to the president, and the number of hot-button issues its occupants must tackle, it really can’t be said that most of its occupants can be perceived as failures. Rice’s immediate predecessor, Tom Donilon, was certainly not perceived that way—getting a mixed grade, perhaps, but hardly a failing one. His predecessor, Jim Jones, was not seen as a success, but that was largely because he was undercut by a coterie of staffers close to the president and, indirectly, by a president who didn’t fully empower him or back him up. Steve Hadley was quite successful, actually, as Bush’s national security advisor, helping with the benefit of a largely new team elsewhere in the administration to enable Bush to change course in his last couple of years and finish much stronger than he had started.
Condi Rice oversaw a deeply troubled period in U.S. foreign policy in Bush’s first term, but that was largely attributed to the president enabling others in the administration, notably the vice president and the secretary of defense, to gain too much traction and to backdoor the interagency process. Sandy Berger was quite a successful national security advisor in the Clinton second term. Tony Lake, not as successful—he was, like Rice and Jones, an example of a “learning curve” national security advisor, overseeing the process while his boss was getting his sea legs—but he was not seen as a failure. His greatest challenge, in some respects, was that his predecessor, Scowcroft, was seen as the gold standard in the job. You can go back further through history and pick out others who were seen as capable, like Colin Powell or Frank Carlucci, and some who were seen as particularly strong, like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. So it is a mixed bag.
JG: Your answer suggests that success in this job is derivative, meaning that if a president is prepared to meet the challenges, his national security team will look good, not dysfunctional. Maybe there’s only so much she can do.
DR: If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.
If the president knows what he wants, is committed to respecting the policy-formation process and entrusting it to the national security advisor and his or her team, and fully empowers the national security advisor, the advisor has a good chance of being successful. This is a job that’s not mentioned in the Constitution, not described at length in the National Security Act of 1947 that formed it, and therefore is largely whatever the president wants it to be. A national security advisor with a committed, trusting, experienced president is always more likely to be successful—although if the national security advisor lacks the right traits, experience, relationship with colleagues inside and outside the government, etc., then even with the backing of the president, they can and will fail. The fact is, I think your question largely flows from the fact that right now, under President Obama and Susan Rice, we are in the midst of a particularly dysfunctional period for the NSC.
JG: So this is really about Obama, in your mind?
DR: If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.
And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.
There have been signs of dysfunction in this administration from earlier. Jim Jones was never really given a chance as the president’s first national security advisor, being cut out by a small group of former Obama campaign members. The first Afghan review was convoluted. And the memoirs of Panetta, Gates, Clinton, Vali Nasr, and others pointed to other issues, whether with the president, or with exclusion of cabinet members. But matters began to deteriorate last year.
JG: Go into this dysfunction you’re talking about in greater depth. Is the “red line” with Syria crisis the moment you thought that the current process was dysfunctional?
DR: Even before the Syria red-line fiasco, there was confusion around how to respond to the overthrow of the Morsi regime in Egypt—marked by poor communications between the State Department and the White House. You also had the fumbled response to the National Security Agency (NSA) scandal that involved lying to and alienating allies; the very weak response to Putin in Crimea that also involved miscommunications between the White House and the State Department; the failure to respond to ISIS when it was clearly emerging as a major threat almost a year ago (remember, it took Fallujah in the beginning of 2014); the self-inflicted wound of touting the Bowe Bergdahl release; and the president’s own communications gaffes associated with the process, from his assertion that his guiding principle was “don’t do stupid shit” to his assertion that he didn’t have a strategy versus ISIS. And, most recently, we have the poorly managed, strategy-less mission against ISIS that is unfocused, inadequate to the challenges, and has already revealed major rifts with the Defense Department’s military and civilian leadership.
All administrations make errors. No process is perfect. But here, everything you look for in a high-functioning process—a national security advisor seen as an honest broker among cabinet departments; the full inclusion and empowerment of the cabinet to harness the resources of the administration; the formulation of good policy options for the president; the effective implementation of the choices the president makes; the effective communication of White House positions; the formulation of strategic perspectives (a role really only the White House can do); the effective separation of political and national-security decision-making processes … good management, good execution, good results—all of that has been missing or disappointing.
It’s as poorly functioning an NSC process as we have seen since Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney back-doored the process in the early years of the Bush administration, or, perhaps, since the Reagan years, the acknowledged nadir of NSC performance. What is especially distressing, however, is that this dysfunction is coming in year six of the administration, at a time when most two-term administrations actually start to perform better. Unfortunately, President Obama’s process is actually regressing.
JG: Compelling case, but two questions come to mind: Am I wrong to say that this is far from the most disastrous foreign-policy presidency we’ve had, post-World War II? The second question is, can anyone possibly manage this process anymore? Information—good and bad—comes in unceasing waves. I’m thinking of what [Deputy National Security Advisor] Tony Blinken [now nominated to be deputy secretary of state] told you for your book about the exponential increase in constant, unceasing communication. Even if the NSC were to manage this process successfully, how would anyone know? Do you think this can be slowed down—or would having a grand strategy do the slowing for you? (i.e., If you’re not buffeted from issue to issue all the time because you have a target on the horizon, would that help significantly? Or is this just a matter of events upending everything?)
DR: It’s too early to say whether it is far from the most disastrous foreign-policy presidencies we’ve had post-World War II. It is certainly not among the best. Among the worst we have some strong choices—Vietnam was calamitous (although, today, Vietnam is more market-oriented and friendly to the West than we might have thought possible back then, and we did win the Cold War so we achieved our goals to a greater extent than we thought we had in the 1970s). The first term of the Bush administration was a mess and the invasion of Iraq was particularly ill-conceived and damaging. Iran-Contra marks a low point for the NSC’s operations.
Will we someday say our impulse to pull out of the Middle East and our failure to effectively confront the rise of militant extremism or the adventurism of Putin unleashed prolonged instability and real damage to American interests? Possibly. A new administration in 2016 might reverse our stance quickly or, someday, history might say it was really beyond our ability to control events linked to longer term trends.
But I don’t think being the worst or just being average is really what we should focus on now. That’s for historians benefiting from the perspective of time. The real question is, are we doing the best that is possible? Is the system working well? Are we making unnecessary mistakes? Can we, by understanding the origins of those mistakes, do better? I think we can. Even in the face of the kind of avalanche of information to which Tony referred or the growing complexity, speed of events, and overall volatility of the planet, we could certainly avoid the self-inflicted wounds of gaffes that offend allies, mismanagement that alienates key parts of the U.S. government and key appointees of the administration, dithering and convoluted decision processes that produce late action and contradictory or halfway measures, and the failure to follow through on promises or actions—from the Cairo speech to the invasion and pull-out from Libya, now in flames.
JG: Do you think I’m overvaluing grand strategy?
DR: Grand strategy would help, of course. It is useful to have a course. America does best when its foreign policy is aspirational, linked to our desire for growing peace, prosperity, stronger alliances, a healthier planet, than when it is reactive as it has been for the past several years. Frankly, setting aside dreams of grand strategy and the kind of playbook we had in the Cold War that did make many foreign-policy decisions easier, as Brent Scowcroft recently pointed out to me, how about just having clearly defined national interests and a discussion about medium-term strategy, rather than the reactive, tactical, politically driven small-think that has dominated the “don’t do stupid shit” era?
JG: Given the tone of your comments, I’m not sure you have an answer for this, but: Can you name something good the Obama administration has done overseas? I have some achievements in mind, but I’d rather not lead the witness.
DR: The Obama administration has done a number of good things overseas—far too many to list here. But the idea behind the pivot to Asia was excellent (even if the execution has been spotty in the second term). His early speeches set an important tone; coordination with the European Union during the economic crisis was vitally important—their export-promotion team including the Export-Import Bank and the Department of Commerce especially have done a great job; approving LNG exports was a good idea; the Syria chemical deal reduced a specific threat; he got Osama bin Laden and other key terrorists, which was a positive; helping to get rid of Qaddafi was good, even if the post-crisis Libya results have been pretty awful; the political deal they just struck in Afghanistan was not easy and should be stabilizing for at least a while. He put together a pretty good team in the first term. In short, Barack Obama doesn’t get a zero on foreign policy by any means. He gets a C or a low C.
Some of his failures and missteps may have greater long-term negative consequences than the gains. It remains to be seen. But what is indisputable is that especially during his second term the quality of the policy process has deteriorated and the errors and gaffes have added up and, seemingly, accelerated. Right when he should be getting stronger, refreshing his team, learning from his errors, he doesn’t seem to be doing so. But there are still two years left. Hopefully between bad results and the elections and a glance at the calendar he will see that time is ticking away, and that if he wants a successful international legacy, he may have to embrace changes and approaches he has resisted to date.
JG: I’ve noticed, as have you, a tendency by the president to analyze events from the podium. Is this sort of public analysis a good thing? It’s high-level analysis, but does it help the public orient itself around an issue? Or does it convey detachment, rather than leadership?
DR: President Obama’s tendency to “analyze from the podium” is, as you suggest, a mixed bag. It shows his thought process and often reveals his great intelligence. It also looks like he is improvising, doesn’t have a clear worldview or strategy and does not have a policy process that is preparing him properly. It’s a kind of academic trait, one you would expect in a professor. It would be tolerable from him if he were a better manager, had a more disciplined policy process, had a more diverse team that he actually listened to, and if he had more faith in the ability of the United States to engage internationally and in so doing advance our national interests.