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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Obama assembles like-minded team

February 25, 2013

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— During President Obama’s first term, there was hidden friction between powerful Cabinet secretaries and a White House that wanted control over the foreign-policy process. Now Obama has assembled a new team that, for better or worse, seems more likely to follow the White House lead.

The first term featured the famous “team of rivals,” people with heavyweight egos and ambitions who could buck the White House and get away with it. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates were strong secretaries of state and defense, respectively, because of this independent power. Leon Panetta had similar stature as CIA director, as did David Petraeus, who became CIA director when Panetta moved to the Pentagon.

The new team has prominent players, too, but they’re likely to be more deferential to the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry has the heft of a former presidential candidate, but he has been a loyal and discreet emissary for Obama, and is likely to remain so. Chuck Hagel, who will probably be confirmed this week as secretary of defense, is a feisty combat veteran with a sometimes sharp temper, but he has been damaged by the confirmation process and will need White House cover.

John Brennan, the nominee for CIA director, made a reputation throughout his career as a loyal deputy. This was especially true these last four years, when he carried the dark burden of counterterrorism policy for Obama.

It’s a Washington truism that every White House likes Cabinet consensus and hates dissent. But that’s especially so with Obama’s team, which has centralized national security policy to an unusual extent. This starts with national security adviser Tom Donilon, who runs what his fans and critics agree is a “tight process” at the National Security Council. Donilon was said to have been peeved, for example, when a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted on delivering a dissenting view to the president.

This centralizing ethos will be bolstered by White House team headed by Denis McDonough, the new chief of staff, who’s close to Obama in age and temperament. Tony Blinken, who was Vice President Biden’s top aide, has replaced McDonough as NSC deputy director, and State Department wunderkind Jacob Sullivan, who was Clinton’s most influential adviser, is expected to replace Blinken. That’s lot of intellectual firepower for enforcing a top-down consensus.

The real driver, obviously, will be Obama, and he has assembled a team with some common understandings. They share his commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan and avoiding new foreign military interventions, as well as his corresponding belief in diplomatic engagement. None has much experience managing large bureaucracies. They have independent views, to be sure, but they owe an abiding loyalty to Obama.

In Obama’s nomination of people who are skeptical about military power, you can sense a sharp turn away from his December 2009 decision for a troop surge in Afghanistan. The White House felt jammed by the military’s pressure for more troops, backed by Gates and Clinton. Watching Obama’s lukewarm support for the war after 2009, one suspected he felt pushed into what he eventually concluded was a mistake. Clearly, he doesn’t intend to repeat that process.

Obama’s choice for CIA director is also telling. The White House warily managed Petraeus, letting him run the CIA but keeping him away from the media. In choosing Brennan, the president opted for a member of his inner circle, with whom he did some of the hardest work of his presidency. Brennan was not a popular choice at the CIA, where some view him as having been too supportive of the Saudi government when he was station chief in Riyadh in the 1990s; these critics argue that Brennan resisted unilateral CIA operations in the kingdom back then to monitor the rising threat of Osama bin Laden. But agency officials know, too, that the CIA prospers when its director is close to the president, which will certainly be the case with Brennan and Obama.

Obama has some big problems coming at him in foreign policy, starting with Syria and Iran. Both will require a delicate mix of pressure and diplomacy. To get the balance right, Obama will need a creative policy debate where advisers “think outside the box,” to use the management cliche.

Presidents always say they want that kind of open debate, and Obama handles it better than most. But by assembling a team where all the top players are going in the same direction, he is perilously close to groupthink.  

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Comments

jhawkinsf 1 year, 6 months ago

Should the U.S. provide arms to rebels fighting in Syria? Hillary Clinton said yes. So did Panetta. And Gates and Petraeus. So did the joint chiefs. But Obama did not agree, so we didn't send arms.

Was Obama correct, or were the others? It's far too early to tell and that's a question best left for historians. What Obama did do though was take a principled stance. Whether right or wrong, he said he believes in something and he will stick to those beliefs. I commend him for that, even though I have my doubts as to the wisdom of that particular decision. While politics has often been described as the art of compromise, there are times when an individual must make a principled stand.

Too many principled stands and one becomes an obstructionist. For those who feel it necessary to make stand after stand, perhaps politics should not be their chosen profession. Congress would do well to look at Obama's example. Take a principled stand when necessary. But learn to pick your fights. Whether it's the debt or the deficit, whether it's taxes or spending. Pick which will be your principled fight and which will be where you compromise.

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