Shadow Government

New insights contradict Team Obama's self-reports of ideal national security policy process

The metaphorical derecho of the Supreme Court's controversial decision on health care followed by the physical derecho that knocked out power in D.C. combined to drive another story out of the headlines. But as things slowly return to normal, that story is worth returning to, because it helps clarify what "normal" has been. The story is the mushrooming revelations about the Obama administration's suboptimal national security policy-making process.

The most shocking charges have come in a series of excerpts from Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book. The book makes a string of damning charges: that the Obama team sought to suppress intelligence that ran counter to its policies; that the president was actually disengaged from the policy process and not the forceful decider his spinners were claiming; that the team let petty personal feuds trump wise policy; and so on. This comes on the heels of other deeply sourced accounts that reported that the White House political office was in the room when the national security team was deciding on targets for drone strikes, and the extent to which someone leaked details about covert operations that made Obama look strong on national security.

I agree with Paul Miller that the excerpts from the Chandrasekaran's book have a tabloid feel to them, and may indeed contain as much distortionary spin as any White House press spokesman's daily briefing. It is not too hard to cherry-pick vignettes that ring false. For instance, this brief account strikes me as misleading:

But in more than two hours of discussion, the 14-member war cabinet -- which included Vice President Biden, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- never asked McChrystal why he wanted so many more marines in Helmand. The civilians didn't know enough about Afghanistan to focus on that issue. They were also concerned about micromanaging the war, of looking like President Lyndon B. Johnson picking bombing targets in North Vietnam.

From his seat along the wall, Obama's top adviser on the Afghan war, Douglas E. Lute, believed that those around the table were missing a crucial point. Instead of arguing about counterinsurgency strategy -- whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai would improve and whether the Pakistanis would crack down on Taliban sanctuaries -- they should have focused more on how the forces would be employed. That would have revealed how the military had misused the first wave of troops Obama authorized.

Lute may or may not have felt that way, but the book makes it sound like that was the end of the matter. But Lute was uniquely positioned to address this problem by virtue of his privileged access to the president and to Jones and his control over the paperflow for the review. So I think it is more likely that the account describes a problem that provoked Lute into taking some remedial action. Only reporting the problem without reporting the remedial action paints a distorted picture.

Yet, even after discounting for such likely distortions, the picture that remains is disturbing. It would seem to put to rest the myth that this administration has been vastly superior to historical norms in terms of bureaucratic process. And it makes some of the gushing words of the myth-purveyors almost cringe-worthy when reconsidered in context.

Take, for example, our own FP's David Rothkopf:

To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.

Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.

But even a proven structure won't work if the president and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the president enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the vice president and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.

Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process.

Or David Ignatius:

The foreign policy challenges of the past two months were also the first test of the new national security adviser, Tom Donilon. True to his reputation as a political "Mr. Fix-It," he was low-key, to the point of near-invisibility -- and he'll need to present a stronger public face to succeed in that job. But he ran a smooth and seamless policy process, without the competing voices that have sometimes been heard over the past two years.

Donilon's advantage, it appears, is that he is master of the house at the National Security Council. His predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, also tried to run an orderly process, but he had to look over his shoulder at Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff who operated in a sort of prime ministerial role. Emanuel often used Donilon (who was Jones's deputy) as his personal foreign policy operative, which confused lines of responsibility.

"What we have now is a tightly aligned, single process for foreign policy," a senior White House official said when asked what difference the departures of Emanuel and Jones had made.

Or Edward Luce:

‘The truth is that President Obama is his own Henry Kissinger -- no one else plays that role,' says a senior official. 'Every administration reflects the personality of the president. This president wants all the trains routed through the Oval Office.'... 'By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.'... At the end of each meeting, the president summarizes what everyone has said and the arguments each has made with a real lawyer's clarity," says a participant to the NSC principals meeting, which includes Mr Gates and Mrs Clinton. 'When the president finally makes a decision, it is with the full facts and usually shows a high calibre of judgment.'

It didn't take a lot of insider knowledge at the time to recognize that those puffed-up descriptions probably exaggerated the quality of the national security policy process. Now, thanks to a wave of books drawing on extensive insider leaks, it is possible to see just how unduly flattering the early praise was.

When the pundits return to national security issues -- as surely they must at some point in the coming months -- perhaps they will return with a bit more realistic awareness of the process problems that have plagued this administration, just as they plagued previous ones.

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Update: A friend sent me a note suggesting that I was guilty of distortion myself when I cherry-picked the Chandrasekaran piece, particularly when I ended the quote where I did. He points out that the very next paragraph would seem to rebut my claim. It reads:

After the meeting, Lute and his staff assembled a list of follow-up questions for McChrystal. Lute, a three-star general, asked McChrystal to provide more explanation of the location of the bubbles. At the war cabinet's next meeting, McChrystal talked briefly about the need to "demonstrate momentum" in Helmand. To Lute, the answer seemed unsatisfactory, but nobody around the table pressed McChrystal any further.

My friend is right that I should have included that extra paragraph, but I think my basic point still stands regardless: Surely Lute was perfectly positioned to follow up further and press the matter again with McChrystal? Yet the (entire) excerpt makes it seem like he did not, like his unsatisfactory initial exchange was the end of the matter. Now, giving Chandrasekaran the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did investigate further and found no evidence of any follow-up. If that is the case, given the extensive reporting in the piece, it is a pretty damning incident, indeed. For my money, I suspect that Lute and others took some remedial action that is not covered in the reporting.

Either way, my overall thesis seems on solid ground: The Obama national security process has been no where near as idyllic as the boosters have claimed.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Shadow Government

Passionate campaigning for Timor-Leste parliamentary elections

This is the second in a series of posts on Timor-Leste’s July 7 parliamentary elections.

It's great to see a vibrant democracy at work.

In Timor-Leste, political parties are wrapping up active, passionate campaigns as the July 7th parliamentary elections fast approach.

Young political activists are particularly enthusiastic. FRETILIN's final campaign rally in the capitol of Dili was highly visible, raucous and in some ways resembled the atmosphere of World Cup soccer -- painted faces, party flags worn like capes, slogans shouted in unison, loads of happy supporters driving city streets in flat-bed trucks, vans and motorcycles waving banners and singing.

FRETILIN, or the Revolutionary Front for Timor-Leste Independence, is the largest and considered the most organized of the 18 parties and three coalitions facing voters. Xanana Gusmao leads the other major party, the National Congress for the Reconstruction of Timor-Leste, or CNRT. Like many current political leaders and candidates, Gusmao is one of the heroes of Timor-Leste's long struggle for independence.

FRETILIN and CNRT together are expected to garner the most support in proportional, party list voting for the 65-seat unicameral Parliament. But since neither party is likely to gain enough votes for a governing majority, the smaller but still influential Democratic Party may serve as "king maker," deciding with whom to join to form a coalition government.

Timor-Leste's road to freedom has been anything but easy. When Portuguese colonization ended in 1975, the country suffered brutal Indonesian occupation. As many as 250,000 Timorese, roughly 25 percent of the population, lost their lives.

In August of 1999, under UN supervision, an overwhelming majority of Timorese, 78 percent, spoke loud and clear in favor of self-governance and the right to determine their own future.

Indonesian assurances to provide security in the independence referendum were unmet. Militias loyal to Indonesia destroyed Timorese infrastructure, razed homes, and conducted random acts of violence and abuse. It's estimated that 100 percent of the country's electrical grid was rendered useless and 85 percent of buildings burned. In 2012, within a block of my hotel, I see the remaining evidence of this scorched earth policy.

An Australian-led peacekeeping force entered the country later in 1999 to end the violence and, ultimately, secure Timor-Leste independence. The upcoming parliamentary vote is the country's third round of elections since 2002 when it became the first new nation of the 21st Century.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) is observing the voting process in each of Timor-Leste's 13 districts. IRI was the first non-governmental organization to work in Timor-Leste with political parties, beginning in 2000.

IRI delegation leader Frank Wisner noted that Timor-Leste is "a country absolutely determined to create its own democratic traditions."

A new parliament will face a wave of challenges -- high unemployment, inadequate roads, and a lack of economic diversity, among many others. By all accounts, Timorese are committed to tackling these problems and fulfilling their country's hopes and dreams at the ballot box.

Brian C. Keeter is a volunteer Timor-Leste election observer for the International Republican Institute and will provide a series of posts about the July 7 parliamentary elections. He worked at the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Bush administration and is now director of public affairs at Auburn University.

Brian C. Keeter