New Crew

04.03.13

Leslie H. Gelb on Obama’s New Security Team

His foreign policy team just got a whole lot less conservative and even more packed with loyalists. This could leave too much room for mistakes, writes Leslie H. Gelb.

Watch for the foreign policy instincts of President Obama’s first term to fully flower in his second. He always inclined toward diplomacy, but rarely to the point of taking personal political risks. Now in his second term and far less vulnerable to conservative charges of “wimping out,” he’ll put himself more on the line for negotiations and compromise, and will not be chancing steps that could slip into wars. And while he called most of the shots in his first four years, now his decisions will go virtually unchallenged. His team is replete with loyalists in the White House, and senior cabinet officers who lack the clout of their predecessors.

Gone are centrist/conservative Bob Gates at Defense, Hillary Clinton at State, Leon Panetta at the C.I.A. and later at Defense, and General David Petraeus as chief Afghan general and then C.I.A. boss. Newly arrived are moderate anti-hawks like John Kerry at State and Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. Obama loyalists are now even more deeply entrenched: Denis McDonough, closest to the president after Valerie Jarrett, has moved from No. 2 on the NSC staff to White House chief of staff. Tom Donilon, the key political strategist on foreign affairs, is now freer to follow his liberal proclivities.

John Brennan, career C.I.A. insider and Obama buddy, now heads the C.I.A. Ambassador Susan Rice, still holding down the U.N. fort and waiting to replace Donilon, is probably the strongest liberal of the Obama pack and will feel less constrained to express that side now that Republican attacks have dimmed her hopes of becoming secretary of State.This new lineup means that Mr. Obama likely will move as follows on the key issues: He will push the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating track quite hard, contrary to present Israeli expectations.

He’ll play out the diplomatic string with Iran much longer than his first-term rhetoric would suggest—to the point of nuclear compromises beyond what he dared in recent years. He’ll press to reduce U.S. troops in Afghanistan according to the current schedule, meaning all combat troops out by the end of 2014, with 9,000 supporting troops staying on after that—despite mounting counter-pressures from senior U.S. generals. He’ll send strong messages to North Korea with aircraft and special-destroyers deployments, but will avoid significant provocations. He won’t initiate diplomacy with Pyongyang, but will take it up if they propose it.

Another significant change within the administration will become apparent soon enough—that the new bosses at State, Defense, and the C.I.A. have far less political clout than their predecessors.

Finally, the president will dodge direct U.S. military intervention in Syria for as long as he possibly can, and keep plugging for a diplomatic settlement between Syrian rebels and Damascus, however unlikely. Contrast this with the public testimony of Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They openly told Congress that they, Clinton, and Petraeus were pressing the president to supply arms to the rebels, flat-out contrary to White House policy. Dempsey has since backtracked, but he’s the only one of the old group still around. The White House was furious with them. Don’t expect the new team to hint at this position, even in private.

Another significant change within the administration will become apparent soon enough—that the new bosses at State, Defense, and the C.I.A. have far less political clout than their predecessors. Gates, Panetta, Petraeus, and Clinton were political powerhouses in Congress and with the media. Mr. Obama had to pay attention to them, whether he liked it or not—and even give in at times, as with their support of higher U.S. troop levels than he desired in Afghanistan. To be sure, Kerry is respected on the Hill because of his long and careful tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Hagel has little backing in either party after his very weak confirmation hearings. Brennan will never approach the movie-star status of Petraeus or the personal congressional links of Panetta.

This is not good. It’s never good when a president doesn’t have to pay close attention to what his advisers say. Given all presidents have to do, it’s just too easy for them to make mistakes. This is especially the case with Mr. Obama and national security policy, where, though his background is not the strongest, he remains quite confident about his judgments.The interagency decisionmaking process he established with Donilon and McDonough doesn’t help. They hold endless meetings daily at the White House at all senior levels, where they make a lot of demands and issue a lot of orders. This doesn’t dispose officials outside the White House to press their views and argue hard against the White House line. And the White House is not known for regularly soliciting views from outside the administration, including conservatives like Stephen Hadley, Richard Burt, and Dov Zakheim. Many outsiders complain that they’ve had less access to senior officials in the Obama administration than any administration in decades. And outside experts say that when they do get a chance, the exchanges are not free and easy. Mr. Obama and his team owe it to themselves to test their thinking this way. And if they engaged in such serious give-and-take, they’ll make fewer mistakes and earn much more political support.