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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Why Should We Expect Obama to be Any Better in 2015?

The new narrative among political pundits is that President Obama finished 2014 on an unexpected high note that will carry over into the new year.  Yet as I argue in an essay now up on Fair Observer’s website, this view overlooks the leadership dysfunctions and management problems that have long plagued the Obama administration and which will surely trip it up going forward.  The president has done little to suggest that he will fix the policy-making machinery inside the White House that has been widely criticized as chaotic and excessively centralized.

Nor does Mr. Obama recognize how deficient his leadership skills are.  Leon E. Panetta, the Democratic Party’s elder statesman who served as his second Pentagon chief, highlighted this inadequacy in the memoir he published last fall, particularly what he calls the president’s “most conspicuous weakness” – “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.”  Obama, he added, sometimes lacks fire, preferring instead to rely “on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.”  As a result, Obama “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

Just before the memoir’s release, a senior administration official conceded Panetta’s point, acknowledging that the president’s leadership style was “much more that of the lawyer than the CEO.”  Indeed, as I’ve noted in earlier posts (here and here), Obama’s detachment from the policy process and his inability to build personal rapport with counterparts and allies continue to bedevil his administration.

Recent testimony of this was contained in a series of media accounts that laid bare the tensions existing between the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats.  A New York Times report in August, for example, noted that “nearly six years into his term, with his popularity at the lowest of his presidency, Mr. Obama appears remarkably distant from his own party on Capitol Hill, with his long neglect of would-be allies catching up to him.”  The extraordinary public grumbling by Senate Democrats after the disastrous mid-term elections only reinforced this view.

All of this does not bode well for the president.  A Washington Post columnist notes that “As he looks toward his final two years, Obama is looking toward a Congress with few friends, and many enemies, on both sides of the aisle.”  The foreign policy implications of this are stark.  As one observer argues, Obama’s domestic weakness sends…

“… a message to allies and rivals alike around the world that the president will not necessarily be able to keep any promises that he or his team might make. He will not be seen therefore, as credible when he asserts plans or proposes initiatives that require Congressional funding or approval.”

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