Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Is Revenge a Dish Best Served Cold?

Robert Gates tells all. Obama send soldiers to die for a cause he didn't believe in - for politics. This would have been more useful about two years ago.
It is difficult to imagine two more different men than George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Clearly, I had fewer issues with Bush. Partly that is because I worked for him in the last two years of his presidency, when, with the exception of the Iraq surge, nearly all the big national security decisions had been made. He had made his historical bed and would have to lie in it. I don't recall Bush ever discussing domestic politics—apart from congressional opposition—as a consideration in decisions he made during my time with him (although, in fairness, his sharp-elbowed political gurus were nearly all gone by the time I arrived). By early 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was the hawkish outlier on the team, with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and me in broad agreement.

With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled. The White House staff—including Chiefs of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley as well as such core political advisers as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs —would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I'm sure, had precedents). 

I never confronted Obama directly over what I (as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and others) saw as his determination that the White House tightly control every aspect of national security policy and even operations. His 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.

I had no problem with the White House driving policy; the bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments rarely come up with big new ideas, so almost any meaningful change must be driven by the president and his National Security Staff (NSS), led during my tenure under Obama by Gen. James Jones, Thomas Donilon and Denis McDonough. But I believe the major reason the protracted, frustrating Afghanistan policy review held in the fall of 2009 created so much ill will was due to the fact it was forced on an otherwise controlling White House by the theater commander's unexpected request for a large escalation of American involvement. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request surprised the White House (and me) and provoked a debate that the White House didn't want, especially when it became public. I think Obama and his advisers were incensed that the Department of Defense—specifically the uniformed military—had taken control of the policy process from them and threatened to run away with it. 

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 NSS'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.


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