Survival at Stake

This Is Obama’s Last Foreign Policy Chance

The failure of Obama or Biden to show up in Paris made clear that most of the president’s team can’t be trusted to conduct U.S national security policy and must be replaced—at once.

01.14.15 10:55 AM ET

Here’s why America’s failure to be represented at the Paris unity march was so profoundly disturbing. It wasn’t just because President Obama’s or Vice President Biden’s absence was a horrendous gaffe. More than this, it 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. America, its allies, and friends could be heading into one of the most dangerous periods since the height of the Cold War.

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’ll also need to seed the Defense and State Departments with new top people serving directly as senior advisers to the secretaries. And he also will need to set up regular consultations—not the usual phony ones—with the two key Senate leaders in this field, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker and Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, two people who can really improve his decisions and bolster his credibility. Many will be tempted to dismiss these crash solutions as several bridges too far, as simply unrealistic. But hear me out. It can be made much more plausible than it seems at first blush. What’s more, if Mr. Obama doesn’t do something along the lines of what’s proposed here, he and we are in for unmanageable trouble.

Before I continue, I have to tell you that I’ve never made such extreme and far-reaching proposals in all my years in this business. I’ve never proposed such a drastic overhaul. But if you think hard about how Mr. Obama and his team handled this weekend in Paris, I think you’ll see I’m not enjoying a foreign policy neurological breakdown.

It was an absolute no-brainer for either Mr. Obama or Mr. Biden personally to show the American flag on the streets of Paris. Of course every senior staff person should have recommended it three seconds after the news of the Parisian horrors. So far as we know, none did. Sure, this was an inexplicable and utter staff failure, but the president and the vice president shouldn’t have required anyone to tell them what to do in this situation. It was, after all, about terrorism, the main issue of the era. If all these top officials blew this obvious decision, shudder at how they’ll handle the hard ones.

First, 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. They can all be replaced right away, and their successors won’t require senatorial confirmation.

Here’s who could succeed them and inspire great confidence immediately at home and abroad: first rate former top officials and proven diplomats Thomas Pickering, Winston Lord, and Frank Wisner; Republicans with sterling records like Robert Zoellick, Rich Armitage, Robert Kimmitt, and Richard Burt; or a rising young Democrat of proven ability and of demonstrated Cabinet-level quality, Michele Flournoy. Any one of them would make a huge difference from Day 1 in a top role. Others among them could be brought on to the NSC as senior advisers without portfolio to take the lead on specific problems. These are not just my personal opinions about these individuals; they are practically universal ones.

The State Department really needs help, too. Anthony Blinken, the new No. 2 there, is quite good and should stay. But Secretary of State John Kerry has been described even by the faithful in this administration as quixotic. Any of those mentioned above for the top NSC job could also serve as senior advisers without portfolio to Kerry and Blinken. But they would have to be given real access and authority. Even if they could only do their advising two or three days a week, these are the kind of people who carry most of the relevant information in their heads already, and their experience is unmatched.

Ashton Carter, the defense secretary to be, will be very strong and very good, but he too could use some senior national security/foreign policy advisers to help him through the long list of problems. Particularly good in this role would be Dov Zakheim, a Pentagon undersecretary in a Republican administration. He knows budgets and policy. Carter could also take aboard first rate retired military minds such as Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Jack Keane, the former vice chief of staff of the Army.

And Mr. Obama also has a great opportunity that he should try his best to pursue: establishing a genuine working relationship with two new senatorial power brokers. Bob Corker and John McCain really know their stuff and are very good heads. Nothing can stop McCain from going beyond acceptable limits of critiquing Mr. Obama, and if he’s determined to do it so be it, but he has the knowledge and often the good instincts to really improve the president’s defense policies. This can work only if McCain accepts that he is not president of the United States and commander in chief. At some point, he’d have to be a team player as he has proved he can be. Corker is much more self-controlled and a very wise head on foreign policy. The more Americans get to know him in the coming years, the more this gem of a public servant will be recognized.

Finally, Mr. Obama will need the usual wise men for regular informal consultation: Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Baker.

These suggestions are all ad hoc and a bit helter-skelter. But no one can figure out how to make the present Obama team work, and I haven’t heard other solutions.

In the end, making the national security system work comes down to one factor, one man—Barack Obama. He’s the key problem, and he’s the only one who can bring about a solution. He’s such a closed person. He’s first rate as an intellectual thinker, but he thinks about problems as an intellectual and not as a policy maker and a leader. Alas, that’s just too clear. He also doesn’t like to be challenged with give and take. If he were to bring in the kind of people I suggest, he would have to resolve at the outset to give them a full hearing and tangible respect for their views.

The world’s challenges to America today are not mere distractions from domestic priorities. They are gut challenges to our national security in the Middle East, with Russia and China, and with the terrorist threat inside and outside our borders. The terrorism and cyber warfare challenges in particular imperil our very survival.

Mr. Obama will not be a lesser man but a greater man if he recognizes what’s at stake and accepts the help he must have to ensure our survival. End of story.