Inside Obama's NSC War Room
The president rules his National Security Council meetings with an iron fist, making rapid-fire decisions. But Leslie H. Gelb says the team’s frenzied pace reveals a worrisome lack of strategy.
If you were allowed to perch inside the Situation Room at the White House and listen to a National Security Council meeting, you’d find the most centralized and controlled operation, well, ever. It is an Obama-centric system. The president sets the schedule of meetings, runs the discussions with an iron hand, actually calls on attendees to talk, and usually ends the session by making decisions at the table. And either because of his command personality and style or the moderate consensus of the participants or both, they are getting along with each other better than any group of NSC officials in memory.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the Obama decisions fall into the category of change for change’s sake.
The principal participants in these meetings, besides the president, are: Vice President Joe Biden; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Defense Secretary Bob Gates; National Security Adviser Jim Jones; his deputy, Tom Donilon; another deputy, Denis McDonough (known as Obama’s enforcer); and intelligence chiefs Dennis Blair and Leon Panetta. Key aides from the departments and NSC staff also attend, depending on the subject.
Historically, the meetings have been more or less informal, with the national-security adviser running the sessions, asking questions, making sure the agenda gets covered. Participants joined in as they had something to say, often interrupting each other. Presidents, of course, intervened as they wished to comment or question. Only on rare occasions did presidents actually make decisions at the table. Usually they’d return to the Oval Office with the national security adviser and perhaps one or two others, and draft a decision directive, which they’d pass around to the secretaries of State and Defense informally before issuing it.
The Obama system doesn’t close off debate, and participants aren’t complaining about not being able to speak their piece. But I find it hard to believe—based on my own experience at such meetings—that the people at the table don’t feel more constrained than usual by the direct involvement and control of Obama. While his words certainly invite disagreement and dissent, his command manner may discourage it.
At this point, my main concern, however, is not the discussions, but the frequency and ease of the Obama decisions. Just in the last few weeks, he’s decided to reset relations with Russia; offer Russia a trade of not deploying US missiles in Eastern Europe in return for Moscow’s help with Iranian nukes; send envoys to Syria; invite Iran to a conference on Afghanistan; suggest the US would be willing to talk to the Taliban; assure China that our human-rights concerns would take a back seat to economic relations; and on and on.
It’s not that I quarrel with most of these calls; most are basically sensible. But to me, it’s not sensible to put them out one at a time and without first coming to terms with an overall strategy to deal with these particular issues. Don’t decide on sending more troops to Afghanistan and talking to the Taliban until you’ve first worked out your overall strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. For example, two weeks ago, the Obama administration criticized the Pakistani government for making a deal with the Taliban in a region not far from Islamabad. Only a few days later, the administration announced it was just fine for us to deal with the Taliban. The president will get himself into more and more such contradictions and tensions if he continues this pattern.
There is also the question of the frequency of major new decisions. It hardly seems that a day goes by without some new policy and some new front-page headline. It’s almost as if Obama’s clarion call for change has gone beyond an expression of need and become an ideology in and of—and for—itself. Again, I don’t quarrel with changing a great deal of what the former president did to us and the world. He did many awful things that require fixing. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that some of the Obama decisions fall into the category of change for change’s sake.
It’s one thing to know that Bush’s mistakes must be rectified and another to know precisely what the new approach should be. Obama should give himself more time in between policies announcing far-reaching departures. In doing so much, so fast, he also runs the risk of people coming to believe he’s not thinking these things through or that he’s arrogant, whether or not he’s making the right calls.
But for all of the frantic pace and all the decisions being made, one aspect of the Obama system cries for a shout-out: the harmony among the participants. The top dogs in this administration truly seem to be getting along with each other. There are none of the usual press leaks and public maulings between the secretary of state and the national security-adviser. Such brawls were legendary between Henry Kissinger at the National Security Council and Bill Rogers at State or Zbig Brzezinski at the White House and Cy Vance at Foggy Bottom, or between National Security Adviser Condi Rice and Defense chief Don Rumsfeld.
These brawls also caused great harm to American foreign policy because they opened up important differences to exploitation by domestic political opponents and foreign adversaries. By contrast, Hillary Clinton and Jim Jones and many of these players go out to lunch and dinner with each other and seem to like each other. They’re all cut from the same centrist, moderate cloth, and none are ideological or dogmatic. Bob Gates, the only major holdover from the previous administration, is more buttoned up than his colleagues and can be very pointed and direct in what he says. He both gets along with his colleagues and retains probably more independence than any of the other NSC principals.
And of course, Joe Biden is not to be forgotten in this mix—and the others certainly don’t get a chance to forget him. He could well be the most knowledgeable participant on the most issues who attends these meetings, and he has been quite contained and rarely goes off on the interminable tangents for which he became famous in the Senate. He’s probably the closest at the table to being a dissenter, and his colleagues admire him and his openness.
President Obama and his NSC contingent have yet to make major strategic decisions on such key issues as Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, and Russia. And fortunately, they haven’t had to take on a major foreign-policy crisis on top of the daily economic crises they already juggle. But I have the strong suspicion that these experiences won’t change the style of the president or his main advisers very much at all. Obama simply won’t put up with his advisers trashing each other, let alone himself.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, which shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.