Mattis Shines a Poor Light on the Obama White House

800px-james_mattisMy previous post focused on the unnoticed irony involved in the appointment of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, given the Obama administration’s treatment of him when he was head of the U.S. Central Command.  But the Mattis story also underscores two other themes articulated in a number of earlier posts.  The first point regards the utter disingenuousness of President Obama’s once-regular threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  The second is about the dysfunctional character of the Obama national security process.

A recent Washington Post report about the relationship between General Mattis and the Obama White House emphasizes the overriding priority Mr. Obama put on reaching an accommodation with Iran over its atomic ambitions.  In the summer of 2011, Mattis proposed to undertake a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the causalities Tehran-backed militias were inflicting on U.S. forces in Iraq.  The plan reportedly prompted “heated discussions” in Washington that “stretched out for weeks” before it was ultimately rejected by President Obama.  As the newspaper notes, Mattis concluded from the episode that “Obama White House was unwilling to take the fight directly to the Iranians, even when they drew American blood.”

More ructions between Mattis and the White House soon followed.  A second “heated debate” took place during late 2011 and early 2012 when Mattis asked for contingent permission to take preemptive action against any Iranian attempt to mine the strategically-critical Strait of Hormuz.  As the Obama team began to engage in multilateral talks with Iran in the summer of 2012, Mattis further raised hackles by “relentlessly [drilling] the U.S. military’s war plan for Iran” and by emphasizing in his reports to Washington the destabilizing role Tehran was playing in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.

By early 2013, tensions had grown such that Mattis was unceremoniously removed from his post.  Although the Obama administration did not present his ouster as a rebuke, Mattis is reportedly convinced that “he had been dismissed early for running afoul of the White House.” Dennis Ross, who was then Obama’s point person on Iran policy, is also quoted in the newspaper as saying:

It was a kind of culture clash.  There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative. And as time went by, this became increasingly less acceptable to them [emphasis added].

It is, of course, a president’s prerogative to choose his own military commanders and dictate the perimeters of their conduct.  But note the striking disjunction between what was going on behind the scenes with Mattis and what Mr. Obama was publicly saying in 2012.  In that year’s State of the Union address, the president stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”  In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”  “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. Obama then followed this up with a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”

This blog has long been suspicious (see here and here) of the sincerity of the threats President Obama was making at this time about his willingness to undertake military action, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear program.  The Washington Post report further reinforces these doubts.

The Mattis story also exemplifies a regular criticism made about the Obama policy-making process – that his national security inner team was not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.  Commenting on Mattis’s ouster from CENTCOM, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed at the time that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”

A number of previous posts (here, here, here and here) have detailed the Obama White House’s intolerance of critical advice, even when it came from inside the administration.  And the Washington Post article bolsters this point, quoting Leon E. Panetta, who was Defense Secretary at the time, as saying about the debate triggered by Mattis’s plans for retaliating against Iran:

There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive.  But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions [emphasis added].

Senate Democrats heaped high praise on Mattis during his confirmation hearing because they saw his experience as something that will add stability and balance to the new Trump team.  But they showed no awareness that his story also illuminates the real deficiencies of President Obama’s national security policies.

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The Irony of the Mattis Appointment

800px-james_mattisThe easy confirmation of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary entails no small amount of irony.  Senate Democrats perceive the retired Marine general as someone who will speak unvarnished truth to a new White House team they fear will try to insulate Mr. Trump from unpalatable news and disagreeable perspectives.  But left unremarked upon is that his earlier tenure as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, was cut short by the Obama administration for doing precisely that.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

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Obama’s National Security Orphans

Even before he arrived at the White House, much was made about President Obama’s readiness to seek out wide-ranging opinions and employ a “Team of Rivals” for his decision-making.  But as my last two posts (here and here) argue, his reliance once in the Oval Office on an ever-tighter circle of advisers has actually stifled the flow of creative ideas and alternative perspectives that are vital to a well-functioning policy apparatus in the White House.  Two recent news items further underscore this point.

The first is a cover story in The Atlantic’s January/February issue.  It relates that in the spring of 2011 Mr. Obama asked Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator and military reform expert, to bring together a small working group to generate proposals on reshaping the Pentagon in the event he won re-election.  Among other experts whom Hart roped in was Norman R. Augustine, the widely-respected former chairman & CEO of Lockheed Martin who earlier in his career served as acting Secretary of the Army.  The group produced its report and then never heard back from Obama.

This is a regular theme for Obama.  Ahmed Rashid, a distinguished Pakistani journalist, recounts that Obama’s first presidential campaign recruited a strong expert team on AfPak issues (including Rashid) and then all but ignored it.  He did even not bother to consult it prior to his July 2008 trip to Afghanistan during which he made the amateurish mistake of meeting first with one of Hamid Karzai’s political rivals, needlessly antagonizing the insecure Afghan leader and setting the tone for his administration’s deeply strained ties with its wartime partner in Kabul.

A few weeks following his November 2008 election, Obama announced the formation of a high-level panel of private citizens, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to advise him on economic policy.  Explaining the group’s mission, the president-elect declared:

The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking–and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren’t.

But once the board started work, Volcker became disillusioned with the White House’s propensity to use it as a public relations exercise rather than a mechanism for policy ideas.  In early 2011, the board was reconfigured.  Volcker was not consulted on this step and he was unceremoniously replaced as chairman by General Electric’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt.  The new group, however, was not especially active – a condition the White House press secretary said was due to the fact that Mr. Obama was too busy to meet with it.  In the end, the administration decided not to renew its charter and its existence came to an unheralded end once the president was re-elected.

The second news item worthy of note is a post on The National Interest’s website by Lawrence J. Korb, who very early signed on to the first Obama presidential campaign and helped lead its military policy advisory team.  He notes that the 300 national security experts who served on a volunteer basis with the campaign took a considerable career risk since the Hillary Clinton campaign threatened to marginalize them if she ended up in the Oval Office.  Yet for all of their troubles, almost none of them were subsequently drafted into the Obama administration.  Instead, the new president opted to fill the national security bureaucracy with Clinton supporters and Bush holdovers.  A media account back then reported that Korb wrote the president to encourage him to look toward his own bench but never heard back.

Instead of tearing down the walls of the echo chamber, as Mr. Obama once pledged, his administration’s instinct has been to build them up higher.  Domestic affairs and foreign policy have suffered alike as a result.  Unfortunately, the problem is only becoming worse, since the president has now stopped interacting with all but his most loyal staffers.

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The Real Problem in Washington is Obama’s Management Style

Steven Brill, a distinguished journalist with liberal political leanings, was on National Public Radio last week giving an overview of his new book about Obamacare’s bitter politics and disastrous rollout.  His remarks (audio and transcript here) reinforce the points I’ve made in my last post about how the management problems long undermining the Obama White House will derail the president’s hope of using the next two years to shore up his policy legacy.

Brill is particularly critical of the White House’s role in overseeing Obamacare’s botched launch in the fall of 2013.  He related in the radio interview that he received seven different answers from administration officials when he asked in the months leading up to the rollout who was ultimately in charge.  He exclaimed that “there have [sic] never been a group of people who more incompetently [launched] something.”  He emphasized that Obama’s tightly-knit inner circle – and especially Valerie Jarrett, who seems to function as Obama’s consigliere – shielded the president from numerous signals warning that all was not well.  As a result, Obama failed in the most basic task as a manager, since “he did not know what was going on in the single most important initiative of his administration.”

I’ve noted earlier that there are common themes connecting the Obamacare fiasco and the White House’s dysfunctional national security apparatus.  Brill’s remarks underscore a major one: The president’s closest confidants squelch the flow of bad news and dissenting advice into the Oval Office.

Criticism of Jarrett’s extraordinary influence on policymaking has risen as administration setbacks multiply.  Early on, a long profile in the New York Times magazine dubbed her “the ultimate Obama insider” while a review in the New Republic two months ago called her the “Obama Whisperer.”  Brill reports he’s heard from five senior administration officials that Jarrett is the “real chief of staff” in the White House on many issues.  And according to a top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, she is “not only Rasputin” – referring to the mystical figure who served as a private adviser to the last Russian czar – but also “the Berlin Wall preventing us from even getting messages to the president.”

It’s similar story for Denis R. McDonough, a former Obama campaign official who now serves as the White House chief of staff.  Two years ago I questioned whether he was the right choice for the job given that the criticism he attracted for running a very sloppy and politicized shop when he was the president’s deputy national security advisor.  Several months before the Obamacare launch, Time magazine reported that the West Wing under McDonough was fully focused on the rollout and that McDonough himself was spending two hours a day on it.  Brill adds that on the evening before the October 2013 launch, McDonough was reassuring everyone in sight that the website would work even more spectacularly than advertised.

In the weeks following the bungled rollout, Obama acknowledged that “We have to ask ourselves some hard questions inside the White House.”  Ron Fournier at the National Journal opined that the president needed “to fire himself.  Not literally, of course, but practically.  He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.”  Given his central role, some observers speculated that the axe would fall quickly on McDonough though in the end he managed to emerge from the episode unscathed.

The sharp rebuke the White House suffered two months ago in the midterm congressional elections occasioned a similar spat of advice.  A piece in Politico counseled the president to dump Jarrett, while Dana Milbank at the Washington Post urged him to sweep the White House clean of the yes-men culture personified by McDonough and Jarrett.  Instead, Obama has now reportedly stopped interacting with most of his advisers in favor of closeting just with McDonough and Jarrett.

As I wrote last week, the problem with all the talk about Obama now being free to pursue the policy agenda he’s always wanted is that he is only as good as the people he relies upon and the management style he’s installed in the White House.  Until the president realizes this, he’ll find the next two years to be as frustrating as the previous ones.  Domestic affairs will suffer, but so will U.S. foreign policy.

UPDATE, January 15: Writing today on the Daily Beast website, Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, underscores the points made above.  He argues that the White House’s failure to send President Obama or Vice President Biden to last weekend’s Paris unity march …

… demonstrated beyond argument that the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national security policy in the next two years. It’s simply too dangerous to let Mr. Obama continue as is—with his current team and his way of making decisions.

He advises that “Mr. Obama will have to excuse most of his inner core, especially in the White House. He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”  He adds that …

… Mr. Obama will have to thank his senior National Security Council team and replace them. The must-gos include National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, chief speech writer/adviser Ben Rhodes, and foreign policy guru without portfolio Valerie Jarrett.  He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.

UPDATE, January 20: In a television interview today, Denis McDonough took responsibility for the decision not to send a high-level representative to the Paris unity march.

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Obama Should Take Bob Gates’s Criticism to Heart

In earlier posts (herehere, and here), I’ve argued that the Obama administration’s national security process is plagued by extreme insularity, centralization and politicization.  This is a widely held criticism, regularly repeated not just by the president’s detractors but also former administration staffers and friendly commentators.  And the new revelations by Robert M. Gates, the much-respected national security professional who served as President Obama’s first defense secretary, further punctuate these points.

Gates’s long-anticipated memoir of his two-and-a half years in the Obama Cabinet will be officially released next week.  But according to media accounts, the book is harshly critical of the president’s leadership style and his national security inner team.  The New York Times reports:

The ‘controlling nature’ of the Obama White House and the national security staff ‘took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,’ Mr. Gates writes.

Under Mr. Obama, the national security staff was ‘filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics and political operatives’ with little experience in managing large organizations. The national security staff became ‘increasingly operational,’ which resulted in ‘micromanagement of military matters — a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.’

According to an account in the Washington Post, Gates claims in the book that the Obama White House “was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

Gates reiterates these themes in an essay appearing in the Wall Street Journal two days ago.  He writes:

Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren’t over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the [national security staff’s] micromanagement and operational meddling, which I routinely resisted. For an NSS staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House—and probably cause for dismissal. It became routine under Obama. I directed commanders to refer such calls to my office. The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary Clinton as much as it did me.

A number of observers have noted how the White House operating style under President Obama entails the squelching of dissenting views and the shutting out of unpalatable information.  Gloria Borger, CNN’s chief political analyst, recently quoted a former White House staffer who admitted that “People don’t like to tell [Obama] bad news.  Part of it is the no-drama culture.”  Ron Fournier, the chief political columnist at the National Journal, argues that Mr. Obama is …

… surrounded by fawning aides who don’t understand why anybody would object to his policies; thus they are often caught flat-footed by critics. They often put political tactics ahead of governing, protecting the president’s image with narrow-minded zeal.*

And the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quotes a leading progressive operative whose judgment is more succinct: “These guys are stunningly arrogant. They really believe that their shit doesn’t smell, that they have all the answers. And that arrogance continues to hurt them.”

A year ago, reports emerged that the White House was ousting Gen. James N. Mattis as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Greater Middle East, in part because he questioned the wisdom of administration policy regarding Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  More recently, Rosa Brooks, who served in the Pentagon’s policy shop in the Obama first term, wrote that many senior military leaders she is in touch with complain…

… of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. ‘The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute,’ laments a former military official, ‘so they have no time—they’re almost incapable of strategic thinking.’

Brooks added that a retired senior general tells her that “I don’t understand the process by which the White House is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions. … There’s an appearance of consultation, but you know you won’t be listened to.”

Gates weighs in on this issue by noting that:

All too early in the administration, suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.

The broad dysfunctions Gates identifies are readily evident not only in the administration’s national security apparatus but also in Obamacare’s disastrous launch.  The White House has already started to push back on his criticisms, though a smarter approach would be to take them to heart.  A good place to start is to quietly constitute a small group of “wisemen” to offer recommendations on reforming the administration’s management of national security.

*By the way, for White House sycophancy one cannot do better than this example by Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s closest confidante.

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Obama: Can the “Lonely Guy” Be an Effective Foreign Policy Leader?

UPDATE (November 25): In a just-released CNN/Opinion Research poll, only 40 percent of Americans rate President Obama as an effective leader, a figure that is down 12 percentage points from June.

In earlier posts (here, here, here and here), I’ve argued that the Obama administration’s national security process is plagued by extreme insularity, centralization and politicization.  Ultimately, however, these institutional problems are a reflection of the person sitting in the Oval Office.

The deepening Obamacare fiasco has raised plenty of questions about President Obama’s leadership qualities.  But two reports this week highlight continuing concerns about his skills as a national security manager.  The first is by Rosa Brooks, a former administration staffer who has been vocal about Mr. Obama’s leadership failings on the foreign policy front.  In a piece appearing in Politico’s new magazine, she calls attention to the growing tensions between President Obama and his top military advisers:

In my interviews, however, many senior military leaders complained of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. ‘The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute,’ laments a former military official, ‘so they have no time—they’re almost incapable of strategic thinking.’

Brooks also quotes another retired senior general, who says: “I don’t understand the process by which the White House is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions. … There’s an appearance of consultation, but you know you won’t be listened to.”

The second report is in the Daily Beast regarding a serious rift between Susan E. Rice, the president’s new national security advisor, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry over how to approach the new military-backed government in Cairo.  The divide has created a policy muddle, with Egyptian officials reportedly…

… receiving diverging messages from the U.S. government’s various parts, causing confusion as they try to decide how to react to recent U.S. actions. For example, the administration has not told the government of Egypt what exactly it must do to get the partial aid suspension lifted, said a source close to the Egyptian government.

The confusion has also contributed to the remarkable breakdown in U.S.-Saudi relations over the past few months.

To be sure, sharp differences over foreign policy are a feature of every administration.  But what is striking is how long Mr. Obama has allowed them to fester.  As the Daily Beast observed, the problem with the administration’s Egypt policy is that it is not only hampered “by internal tensions but also by being ad hoc and reactive, without a long-term strategy dictated by President Obama.”

The president’s inattentiveness to foreign policy problems is not a new development.  As I noted earlier, he turned a blind eye to the sophomoric squabbling that consumed his national security team during the key 2009-10 period when his Afghan troop surge was underway.  One consequence was that promising leads about the Taliban’s readiness for a peace settlement – including one involving King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – languished for months.

Even sympathetic observers are now beginning to take notice of Obama’s lackadaisical approach to policymaking.  Six months ago, Joe Klein, Time magazine’s political columnist, lamented that “his unwillingness to concentrate — and I mean concentrate obsessively — on making sure that government is managed efficiently will be part of his legacy.”  And Dana Milbank at the Washington Post tagged him as “President Passerby [who] needs urgently to become a participant in his presidency.”  Last month, an article in this newspaper quoted William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, as saying:

Compared to the president I served, this president doesn’t seem to be as relentlessly curious about the processes of government — whether the legislative process or the implementation process or the administrative and bureaucratic process.

The article added that:

Former Obama administration officials said the president’s inattention to detail has been a frequent source of frustration, leading in some cases to reversals of diplomatic initiatives and other efforts that had been underway for months.

Picking up on this point, Todd Purdum, a national editor at Vanity Fair magazine, has dubbed Obama “the lonely guy” – a man of such resolute solitude that he is now unmoored from the management of his own administration.   Contrary to those who see Obama as possessing a surfeit of self-confidence, Purdum reports that …

… at least one former senior administration adviser has argued that the trait springs from the opposite source: a basic insecurity on the president’s part, one that keeps him from surrounding himself with strong intellectual rivals in either the White House or the Cabinet. Competent they may be, but with Hillary Clinton gone there is no figure of unquestioned stature. He has quietly purged from his inner circle those most likely to stand up to him….

Mr. Obama’s counterparts abroad seem to have come to the same conclusion.  Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal notes that “World leaders do not understand what his higher strategic aims are, have doubts about his seriousness and judgment, and read him as unsure and covering up his unsureness with ringing words.”  And she quotes a former senior U.S. diplomat as saying: [Obama] doesn’t know what to do so he stays out of it [and] hopes for the best.”

From the mishandling of the Syrian crisis to the health care imbroglio, the past few months have cast a harsh light on the drawbacks of a governing style that is big on ideas but has little interest in details.  Several weeks ago, the president conceded to a group of Obamacare supporters: “Let’s face it, a lot of us didn’t realize that passing the law was the easy part.”  The time has come for a similar revelation on foreign policy.

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