Obama's 7 Hidden Power Players
A small clique of deputies and advisers will wield great power and influence on the president’s foreign policy. A guide to real inside players.
Everyone, understandably, has been fixated on the Cabinet-level leaders of President Obama’s foreign policy team—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Bob Gates, and National Security Council adviser Gen. James Jones.
Politics watchers who revel in bloodletting surely will be disheartened to hear that this Obama clique is not populated by ideological nuts, and that they get along with one another quite well.
But just underneath them, there is a tight-knit and generally like-minded clique of their deputies and close advisers. They already wield great influence on Obama’s national-security policies and personnel selection. And yet, few beyond the Washington Beltway know who they are, what they do, and what they believe.
The clique plays a central role—just below the Cabinet and along with Obama’s Chicago mafia in the White House—in choosing other top-level policy makers in the administration. (The ranking goes Cabinet secretary, deputy secretary, undersecretary, and assistant secretary.) Far more than their bosses in the White House, they know personally all the players in the international fields, so their bosses have to rely on them for top job recommendations. They usually have more policy expertise than their bosses (though not necessarily in this administration). And they will run the critical interdepartmental policy committees where major decisions are made and tougher ones passed up to the National Security Council itself. They also attend NSC meetings with their bosses.
Politics watchers who revel in bloodletting surely will be disheartened to hear that this Obama clique is not populated by ideological nuts, and that they get along with one another quite well. Thus, they are unlikely to treat us voyeurs to the usual brawls that sparkled with rancor and gossip throughout the Bush and Clinton administrations. There are interesting twists to how they’ll perform and mingle, but more about this later.
As Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid kept asking, nervously, “Who are those guys?”
(Order below does not reflect ranking.)
1. Thomas “Tom” Donilon: The ConsigliereThe 53-year-old Donilon is deputy to “Jim” Jones. With his political skills and experience, he will be the clique’s guide on political and bureaucratic traumas; i.e., when to cave in and when to push. A lawyer by trade, he was Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s chief of staff. Unlike all other clique members, he has written few (or maybe even no) foreign-policy oeuvres. He’s more judge than generator of ideas.
2. James “Jim” Steinberg: The Deep ThinkerDeputy to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Steinberg has done tours of duty as dean of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, deputy national security adviser under Bill Clinton, and head of policy planning at State. The 55-year-old has penned many articles and op-eds, and co-authored books on presidential transitions and homeland security.
3. Michèle Flournoy: The Great Bullshit DetectorFlournoy, 48, will be undersecretary of defense and the main international-policy adviser to Defense Secretary Gates. Her main expertise lies in defense issues from the National Guard to nuclear weapons, but she possesses the gift to smell out bad ideas and the courage to say so. She was president and co-founder of Center for New American Security and a former Pentagon official under Clinton.
4. Antony “Tony” Blinken: The Go-To GuyVice President Joe Biden’s chief foreign-policy adviser, Blinken, 46, has no enemies and a lot of trust on policy and politics after years of service as Biden’s staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a European specialist on the NSC staff under Clinton. He’s written a decent amount on policy under his own name, mainly on European issues. He’s widely regarded as fair-minded and solid on policy.
5. Kurt Campbell: The Lightning Rod
Campbell will serve as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. Based on his personal ties, experience, and reputation, his influence and bold thinking will extend beyond Asia. He was the other co-founder and CEO of the Center for New American Security, from which organization will come many new officials. He’s held positions in the Pentagon, NSC, and Treasury, and has a fairly extensive shelf of policy articles and books.
Two other players who are key members of the foreign policy team, but not clique members:
6. Mona SutphenSutphen, 41, is one of the deputies to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. She leaped to this job from Stonebridge International, LLC, former NSC adviser Sandy Berger's consulting shop, where she served as Managing Director. She’s familiar with a wide stretch of policy issues and knows the denizens of the foreign-policy community well.
7. Michael “Mike” Froman Froman is considered the wise man among his contemporaries, and his future in the Obama administration is yet to be announced. But it is bound to be of great consequence. Froman, 46, was Robert Rubin’s chief of staff at Treasury and a law school friend of the president’s whom Obama asked to quietly find and review people for the senior-most jobs.
Now, I have to admit that I’ve known most of these people for many years, am friends with some, and friendly with them all. And I wish them all great success—as I did the Bushies. In any event, it would be unfair to predict their individual or collective performances, since none has held a position anywhere near as difficult as the ones they now occupy (and same for their bosses).
Here’s what I think it is fair to say at the outset:
First, the clique will run the policy process in the administration. Donilon will chair the most important interagency committee—the deputies group—and most of the others will attend its meetings. This will be the main policy forum for the No. 2s and 3s from State, Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence Agency. They will settle a number of issues in this body and frame the issues for the NSC itself. They are present with their bosses at almost every meeting, and they are the principal funnels to the action level, the assistant secretaries (many of whom they were instrumental in selecting).
Second, the clique won’t dissolve in brawls and press leaks, as the Bush and Clinton cliques often did. They say they’re committed to avoiding the sins of their superiors in past Democratic administrations, and that’s to the good. And when and if their bosses start to quarrel over who’s to blame for what failures, they won’t magnify the problems; they’ll try to minimize and bury top-level conflicts.
Third, all are middle-of-the-roaders who are somewhat to the right or conservative side of the Democratic Party as a whole on foreign and national-security policy. They are all pragmatists and problem-solvers by intellectual temperament, and they are not political risk-takers. They will handle most hard problems with consummate skill, but will be reluctant to seek high-risk policy solutions. I hasten to add that their caution is a disease common to almost all who inhabit and aspire to high government office.
Some middle road is the right course most of the time on most issues, but usually isn’t on problems from hell like Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. And those are precisely the places where the clique and their superiors will ultimately be tested and judged.
UPDATE: This article originally reported that Mona Sutphen worked for the Center for American Progress and that Michele Flournoy will be undersecretary of state, not defense. It has since been corrected.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York 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.