Hats Off to Tom Donilon

He may have made mistakes, but the outgoing national-security adviser kept us safe from harm.

Stop for a moment and thank Tom Donilon for his terrific public service and for being a good American. He doesn’t go around saying horrible things about Republicans or people who disagree with him. He wants to work matters out, a quality in desperately short supply in ugly Washington. Most important, as national-security adviser, he has prevented terribly costly stupidities and has lived up to the finest tradition of someone in his office: first, do no harm.

Anyone who has read my rantings these past four years knows I’ve had my differences with Tom Donilon and more so with President Obama. But for all my slings and arrows, I know for a fact that Donilon—more than any other Obama official—did good for our country. He was the key figure in taking U.S. troops out of Iraq quickly, and before we found ourselves in the middle of the bloody civil war now under way there. Sure, some will say that had U.S. troops remained, the internal mess could have been avoided. These critics, however, don’t know any more about Iraq than the leaders who wrongly marched us into that country a decade ago. And Donilon pushed hard for U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, for the Afghans taking responsibility for themselves as soon as possible. He’s been there with his finger in the dike against sliding into another hopeless civil war in Syria. And don’t forget that he was in the lead on refocusing American power and interests on Asia as the top foreign-policy priority. Each one of these acts has helped save America from mistakes, even grave mistakes.

Yes, I quarreled with various aspects of each of these decisions, mainly with the fact that I saw no evidence that they were encased in strategies that made good use of U.S. power and leadership over time. But each move prevented costly errors or set America in the right direction. And with all the mistakes committed in U.S. foreign policy, this keeping us out of harm’s way deserves high praise.

Other, noisier critics damned these moves as “leading from behind.” What a bunch of nonsense. It was leading, leading us away from the old and familiar sins of commission. I can well understand, for example, why critics condemn the White House for “doing nothing” in Syria. That country is a horror show. But to Donilon’s great credit, he fought against the process of U.S. military involvement unless and until Washington could figure out what we would do if our help failed, or how far we were prepared to go to succeed, or whether any meaningful success was feasible in one of the most dreadful and complex of civil wars. It’s not easy to keep one’s finger in this dike. Donilon has done so, and he is brave and he is right. Washington should lead with its rifles aloft only when we know what we’re doing—and as of now, we don’t. I’ve been a part of our nation’s foreign-policy community for half a century, and I know how hard it is to fight back against demands that the United States “do something.”

The something Donilon wanted to do and led this administration toward launching has been the “rebalancing toward Asia.” That region is where the great problems and opportunities rest for America’s future. Donilon played a central role in that long and complex policy redirection. That’s a big deal. His successors will face the arduous task of fleshing out the content of this “pivot.”

Susan Rice, whom I’ve also known for decades, will have her difficulties in filling Donilon’s shoes. Yes, Donilon had shortcomings on strategy (who doesn’t?) and placed beastly demands for paper on the bureaucracy (State and Defense especially), which they felt prevented them from doing serious policy. Well, all those departments had their secretaries to help stop this deluge, but essentially, they let Donilon do his thing.

I don’t think this will be Rice’s shortcoming. She’s not a paper-holic like Donilon. She can be quite charming and likable, and she is awfully smart. Even more so than Donilon, however, she has a temper that needs tempering. And unlike Donilon, she often rushes to judgment, and then digs in. She’ll have to learn to count to 100, I mean 1,000, before making up her mind, and meantime, listen to different views carefully. She is closer to President Obama personally than Donilon is, and there’s a danger in that. Too many around the intellectually gifted president are carried away by his personality and force of argument. They shouldn’t be; he still has a lot to learn himself about how to use the powers of the White House. And Ambassador Rice could do a lot worse than consult Donilon with some regularity.

A long line is already forming to condemn Ambassador Rice and to rip apart Tom Donilon. Wait on Rice, wait. Don’t wait on Donilon; thank and praise him now. He has served our country very well.