More Drama Would Help Obama

The president’s foreign-policy team has been remarkably conflict-free. Leslie H. Gelb on why internal strife might make better policy.

02.28.10 10:50 PM ET

There hasn’t been a time quite like this for over 50 years, since the Vietnam War. Battle royals over foreign and national-security policy have pockmarked every administration since Lyndon Johnson’s, each one heightened by personality conflicts. For a year now, however, relative peace has reigned within the Obama administration on these matters. The White House hasn’t been trashing or mutilating the secretary of State through press leaks or vice versa. The secretaries of State and Defense haven’t had to preside over the usual, weekly departmental brawls. What has produced this Washington miracle? And has peace within the U.S. government led to better prospects for peace abroad, or worsened them?

The absence of the usual Sturm und Drang has not produced great foreign policies, solved any of the major foreign-policy issues, or even put those issues on a surer course to solutions.

The George H.W. Bush administration wins second place for internal foreign-policy peace—an impressive feat, since it came at a time when there was plenty to argue about: an Iraq war and a collapsing Soviet Union. President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft agreed on policy and had very compatible personalities. The outlier was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who was more hawkish on Iraq and felt his administration buddies were unwisely propping up Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Third place on internal policy peace goes to the second Clinton administration, which didn’t face major problems abroad and didn’t see much internal strife either.

By contrast, the battles during the Johnson administration—almost all over Vietnam—were legendary. Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford fought to set limits on American involvement in the war against Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow. The Carter administration was dominated by volleys between the National Security Council led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and the State Department under Cyrus Vance. Under George W. Bush, there was serious bloodletting between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, with Powell increasingly frozen out over Iraq War policy. Under Ronald Reagan, there was internal warfare over Soviet-American relations, and plenty of battles between Defense chief Caspar Weinberger and the State Department standard-bearer, George Shultz.

The Obama team has faced no shortage of crises to argue about—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, China, and the Middle East—and yet nothing has approached the boiling point, save one moment on troop increases for Afghanistan. One key reason for the internal peace has been the love fest between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pentagon chief Robert Gates. Basically, Hillary hugs the Pentagon, the generals, and Gates himself. She’s comfortable with their hard-edged, centrist-to-conservative line. That was essentially her stance during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, as well as during her Senate years. At times, Hillary’s subordinates chafe over her approach to the Pentagon, but it’s all within bounds.

The same is true for the White House staff and General Jones’s NSC staffers. They complain, as did NSC staffs in the past, about “poor” State Department work, but the objections are “departmental,” not personal. Some in the White House blanched at Gates’ giving too much running room to General Stanley McChrystal over Afghan policy, but otherwise appreciate the cover Gates gives them with the ever-shrinking realist school within the Republican Party. There is unhappiness about how Gen. Jones does his job, but few policy disputes with him.

Another critical explanation for the White House-State Department truce is—surprise!—Democratic politics. Obama and his admiring advisers appear to think that appointing Hillary to State was the smartest thing they’ve done. Given all of the president’s political woes, increasingly within the Democratic Party itself, they know that had Hillary remained in the Senate, she would have become the gathering point of opposition to the president’s reelection bid. As things stand, Hillary is more or less trapped by the prestigious job she fills and by the fact that she’s given up her daily political base. But the point is this: The crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue wants to keep Hillary happy. Who knows, perhaps Obama might be tempted to jettison his effective Vice President Joe Biden and ask Hillary to be his running mate in 2012. What better stratagem to keep her on board?

To the extent that anyone within the administration is challenging the conventional or consensual wisdom on any major policy, it seems to be Biden himself. Probably the only real strategist among Obama’s senior advisers, he fought hard to keep the number of new troops heading to Afghanistan well below the 30,000 level Obama finally approved. Biden also wanted more attention paid to al Qaeda terrorists and less to somewhat more traditional Taliban Islamists. Biden also opposed a runaway hard line on Iran—without something to back it up. He and all the others, however, are on the same train when it comes to continuing to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, as was agreed under the Bush administration. Dick Cheney’s opposition to a lot of the foreign-policy changes George W. Bush made during his last two years led to a diminished role for the vice president. So far, there’s no sign of trouble for Biden.

Indeed, it’s pretty quiet on the foreign-policy front generally, including outside the administration. To the extent there’s any pushback on Afghan policy, it comes from a containable group of liberal Democrats. Some conservatives and pro-Israeli types push for a tougher line on Iran, but they haven’t been terribly convincing and haven’t gained traction. Rumblings in both parties are growing over developing a harder line toward China, but they haven’t yet approached a boiling point. As for the Middle East, most have thrown their hands into the air, but won’t fuss unless the Obama team thinks of squeezing Israel.

The absence of the usual Sturm und Drang has not produced great foreign policies, solved any of the major foreign-policy issues or even put those issues on a surer course to solutions. The president and his national-security team don’t want to stray far from their center, right-of-center policies on the major subjects. That would open them to attacks from the right—on top of the constant blasts on domestic and economic policies. The one area where Republicans tried to level the White House on national security was on counterterrorism. They accused the Obama team of being soft on terrorism, a preposterous charge that vaporized instantly with the capture of Taliban leaders in Pakistan. But the incident gave the White House a glimpse of how easily the initial Republican attacks gained attention, and of the ongoing vulnerability of Democrats to charges of being soft on national security.

No president likes to have internal foreign-policy brawls, and Obama less so than most. He’s obsessed with keeping control of these issues in his hands and seems willing to tolerate mistakes, but not public disagreements. So far, his approach has not resulted in disasters abroad. But crunch time is coming: as Iraq may face civil war again as U.S. troops depart; Iran moves closer to weaponized nukes; and, down the line, when Obama begins removing forces from Afghanistan in July 2011, as he has promised. It is then that the internal peace will be seriously tested.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.