Shadow Government

Obama is playing it safe with Panetta

Name recognition. A team player. Well liked in D.C. Leon Panetta was by far the administration's safest choice for  Secretary of Defense.

The White House needed someone to fill Bob Gates's oversized shoes without having to give too much in the way of introductory explanations to the public. Many, indeed virtually all, of the other potential candidates for this job that have been bandied about in the past few months are virtually unknown outside the Beltway. That might not have mattered as much had the presidential elections not been just around the corner.

With potential candidates not only testing the waters -- but, as in the case of Haley Barbour, already deciding that the water was not entirely to their liking -- the Obama team has already swung into campaign mode. The White House therefore needed to install someone at the Pentagon's helm who, while not a Bob Gates, was widely known and respected throughout the country. And most importantly the White House wanted someone who could be counted on (or at least that is the hope) not to make waves that could upset the course of a reelection campaign. 

There will be ample opportunity for missteps--  and for making waves -- over the next 18 months, because the Obama administration faces some very tough choices in the run-up to the next presidential election. It has enmeshed itself in a Libyan civil war that is of minimal strategic importance to the United States, yet could create huge demands on American resources. Washington has already been dragged back into the war by European NATO allies who simply do not have the wherewithal to finish the job -- whatever that is -- by themselves. American drones may or may not rid Libya of Muammar al-Qaddafi -- he knows they are after him and will ensure that he remains outside their reach. If ever he goes, or if there is a stalemate, the Obama administration will find itself facing the need to rebuild Libya, or whatever part of it remains outside Qaddafi's grip. Yet with the U.S. economy on shaky ground, and an election looming,  it will be tough for the White House to spend money to "reconstruct" without the strongest support from the Pentagon in particular. It will need a solid team player on the E ring of that building. Panetta gives them that team player.

In addition, there may yet be complications in Iraq as the administration pulls out its remaining troops and begins to transition U.S. forces out of Afghanistan. Finally, it is not at all clear that the latest White House plan to further reduce the defense budget by as much as several hundred billion over the next decade or less (the actual number for DoD awaits the arrival of a new secretary) will sit well with the military, or even the Pentagon civilians. The White House needs someone reliable to manage the DoD through what will  be turbulent times.

Having worked well with DOD, Panetta has demonstrated that he is a reliable part of the administration's team. That understanding no doubt derives in no small part from his previous jobs as Director of the Office of Management and Budget and as White House Chief of Staff under Bill Clinton. In addition, as a former multi-term Congressman he understands what it takes to get reelected, and what pitfalls and controversies must be avoided in the process of doing so. He will not rock the boat over Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the budget. And he will do all he can to ensure that defense is not an issue in the forthcoming election; that the Republicans are certain to make it an issue will be no fault of his. The White House could not have made a safer choice; whether General Petreus, his putative successor at the CIA, will be as safe a choice remains to be seen.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Leading from behind

Ryan Lizza has a lengthy and hilarious exposé in The New Yorker about foreign policy in the Obama administration.  It sets out to be a portrait of nobly serious people bringing American national security into line with our diminished influence, "remaking" American foreign policy. The administration clearly thought it was a good-news story, since Secretary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went on the record.

What makes the article so funny is the pompous self-regard of the administration officials and the complete lack of appreciation for how woefully inadequate their performance has been in meeting these challenges. They are "not cursed with self-awareness," to quote Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham. Secretary of State Clinton compares herself as a collegiate Vietnam war protester to the young Egyptians who brought down the Mubarak government. Both Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes explain the importance of reducing involvement in the middle east because our strategic interests lie in Asia ... as the administration engaged in combat operations in Libya. A presidential memo is cited as wisely anticipating the middle eastern revolutions, except that the memo calls for tailored country by country programs that the administration's policies clearly did not have. The author even unwittingly adds to the humor, saying "Obama's instinct was to try to have it both ways."

The richest portrait in this regard is unsigned: a senior official describes the president's doctrine as "leading from behind." I am not making this up. 

Ask any young Marine what "leading from behind" means. They probably won't know; they've only ever seen leaders out front, sharing in the greatest risks because that is the responsibility of command. To the extent they will even understand what you're asking, those Marines will probably say that a leader in the back of the formation is a coward, because they are making their Marines take risks the commander will not expose himself to.

Which is pretty close to what President Obama has done in regard to the demands for democracy in the middle east. He allows others to take risks for which he then claims credit -- as Secretary Clinton tried to do taking a "historic walk through Tahrir Square" in Cairo, except that her brethren in bringing down governments would not play along because they resented her trying to take credit for their revolution when we supported the Mubarak government even during their uprising. As the White House did when the U.N. resolution on Libya passed: the British and French governments did the hard work of preparation and consensus building, but the White House crowed about it's "reset" policy delivering Russia.  Same story on the air war: The White House did the flashy work at the start, took credit, and handed the slogging work of achieving our president's stated objective of regime change over to the NATO allies.  

Let us try for a moment to take the administration as seriously as they take themselves, though. In the article, Secretary Clinton described the administration's policy as "wanting to help the international community accept responsibility." Their objective is sound: to reshape America's foreign relations so that others bear more of the burden of achieving outcomes in our mutual interest. Vice President Biden is actually right that our allies underestimate their strength but want us to step in and make it easier because of our superior power.

But "leading from behind" doesn't produce that outcome. It produces resentful allies who feel we set them up to fail, resentful rebels who feel we would not help them win, resentful victims who continued at great danger to resist despots. It produces governments that ponder whether another powerful state should be assisted because it might prove less aggravating than we are.

The way to achieve the different burdensharing arrangement the Obama administration is angling for is to set allies up to succeed, not question their will to achieve our mutual objectives while we sit safely on the sidelines.