Shadow Government

Will Biden's plan come back to haunt him?

By Peter Feaver

While I am thinking about the intersection of personnel and policy, I wonder what to make of this bit of news: apparently VP Biden will be tapped as the "unofficial envoy to Iraq." This appears not to be the same role as that filled by General Lute, President Bush's "Iraq czar" who was primarily responsible for knocking heads together back in DC to help the mission overseas.  Lute still remains (for the time being) but his position has been downgraded several levels from an Assistant to the President down to a Special Assistant to the President. And, obviously, it is not the same position as the official envoy to Iraq, Ambassador Chris Hill -- the President's personal civilian representative in Baghdad -- although it sounds like it will overlap heavily with that position. Having someone at a senior level focused on Iraq makes sense and it does not get much more senior than the Vice President. So on paper, at least, this is not a bad idea. What concerns me is precisely what Rahm Emanuel told Newsweek, namely that Biden "... knows the players...He brings a lot of experience and expertise on this issue to the table..."

He knows the players alright and, more to the point, the players know him.  What they know him best for is his prominent embrace of the Galbraith plan of a forced partition of Iraq into three parts -- one dominated by the Kurds in the north, one dominated by the Shia in the south, and the remainder dominated by the Sunnis. This plan was later picked up by Les Gelb and eventually by then-Senator Biden. By the time the presidential campaign was in full swing, the media was calling it the Biden plan. It certainly was a bold and strategic idea -- one might even call it Churchillian. Unfortunately, except for the Kurds -- for whom Galbraith was a long-time advocate - it was not popular in the region. On the contrary, it was viewed much the way that Churchill was viewed -- as colonialist meddling that would plunge the region still further into war. Indeed, the terrorists had claimed that the purpose of the US invasion of Iraq in the first place was to divide up Iraq and grab its oil and so the Galbraith-Gelb-Biden plan may have felt like a recruiting bonanza. I bet one could find jihadi websites touting it as the secret "real plan" for Iraq. Of course, Vice President Biden is now working for President Obama and President Obama has largely embraced the Bush plan for Iraq not the Galbraith plan. I have no reason to doubt VP Biden's current commitment to this same plan which aims to make Iraq a unified and stable partner. But I wonder if the famously conspiracy-minded folks in the Middle East will have the same benign view or whether instead they will believe that Biden will be seeking to implement partition. If their perceptions veer off in that direction, transition policy in Iraq could get even tougher than it is likely to be -- and that is more than tough enough.

Shadow Government

Dennis Ross's broad portfolio

By Peter Feaver

I was wrong (and lots of people are adding, "again"). It turns out that Dennis Ross will not be taking up the strategic planning portfolio, as I had previously thought, but will instead take up the broader Middle East portfolio. The wiring diagram is not clear from afar (and may not even be clear from close up) but it looks like he will have a position more like a combination of the roles filled by Elliott Abrams, who covered everywhere the "Near East and North Africa" from Morocco to Iran (but not Iraq), plus Meghan O'Sullivan, who had Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has Pakistan, and so that gives him a remarkably broad regional portfolio that encompasses the two hot war military conflicts plus arguably the most urgent national security problem (Iran). It encompasses the portfolios of two formidable Special Envoys housed at State -- George Mitchell (Israel-Palestine) and Richard Holbrooke (Af-Pak). It also, quite deliberately I suspect, matches almost exactly the portfolio of General Petraeus, CENTCOM commander. That is a lot of grist for one mill, and more world-historical-figures than most mortals could hope to coordinate. But Dennis has formidable talents and will, I believe, work well with Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor who is said to have been the one most keen to bring him on board. So I think it will work out well. For my part, I will be interested to see how all these people coordinate with the Global Engagement Directorate which struck me as an intriguing office when it was announced (especially for the region that comprises Dennis Ross's portfolio)  but which, so far as I can tell, is still in the process of getting its sea legs.

As for my old post on the NSC's strategic planning cell, I now believe it is being filled by Ambassador Mary Yates. She has a long and distinguished record of public service. She is a career Foreign Service Officer with an extensive career with emphasis on Africa. She most recently served as the senior civilian advisor at the new military command of AFRICOM. This experience of close coordination with the uniformed and civilian sectors of the Department of Defense -- at the intersection of policy and operations - will be valuable for her in her new post. The key to succeeding in the strategic planning office lies in establishing close working relationships vertically with the top people -- Jones and Donilon -- and horizontally with the other heavyweights at the NSC -- likely to be Ross and McDonough - and diagonally with the other key offices in the White House. If Ambassador Yates can do that, the office has the potential to make useful contributions to the system. The Obama administration likes to think big about domestic and foreign affairs and so it is a good time to be sitting in the "big think" chair.