Shadow Government

Has Obama succumbed to groupthink?

Is President Obama willing to hear from people who disagree with him? Is he capable of recognizing any merits in arguments from those on the other side? His most loyal staff assure us that he is, but the public record keeps piling up evidence to the contrary. Perhaps it is time for the president to consider some extra steps to ensure he is not trapped inside a bubble of groupthink.

When then-Senator Obama was first gaining prominence on the national stage, a friend of mine who had worked with him over many years assured me that Obama was particularly gifted at the art of "understanding the other." Obama, I was told, naturally, even reflexively, appreciated the arguments of all sides and was skilled at finding common ground -- finding the synthesis that did not do violence to either the thesis or the antithesis. Ever since my friend painted that portrait, I have been waiting for that Obama to show up in the Oval Office.

If that Obama exists, he did not seem to play much of a role in the inaugural speech-writing process. As Michael Gerson observed, Obama's second inaugural address was a "raging bonfire of straw men." For those of us hoping to recapture some of the consolations of pride-in and hope-for our American system that sustained us four years ago, this second inaugural had precious little to offer.

It is one thing to engage in such systematic distortion during a bitter electoral campaign. It is another thing to let it permeate through all of the presidential rhetoric, including speeches usually reserved for appeals to unity and common purpose.

Yet it is a third, and more worrying thing, if that same dysfunction distorts the advisory process.  In that regard, Tom Ricks' reporting (here and here) on the treatment given General Mattis, the CENTCOM Commander, is especially disturbing. Ricks alleges that the White House hurried General Mattis into retirement because they resented the way he was asking probing questions that pointed to deficiencies in current policy.

Of course, it is the President's right to pick the advisors he wants, but shouldn't the President want to have advisors that ask tough, probing questions that flag deficiencies in current policy?

For the record, an Obama spokesman denied that Mattis was being moved along because of the way he provided advice, but even Ricks, a reliable Obama supporter, did not find the denial very convincing. There have been too many of these reports to dismiss this concern with a "nothing to see here" rebuttal: cf., Michael Gordon's account of how the White House sought to stifle military advice it did not want to hear; Rosa Brook's insider account, augmented by extensive additional reports, of a dysfunctional decisionmaking system that muzzled advisors; or then NSA-Jim Jones' infamous "whisky, tango, foxtrot" moment in Afghanistan when he apparently told the Marines not to request additional resources lest their request anger the President.

When I joined the Bush administration early in his second term, I joined a team that was similarly criticized as being "in a bubble" and incapable of understanding contrary viewpoints.  Like Obama's current staffers, I could attest that that was not the system I saw from the inside.  But unlike Obama's current staffers (so far as I can determine), we went beyond looking around the table and reassuring ourselves that we were each very reasonable fellows, fully open to new ideas. We put in place a series of informal institutions and procedures that brought us and White House principals, especially the president, into direct contact with the opposing views -- on paper and, crucially, in person. These ranged from academics (historians, political scientists, economists, etc.) to think-tank experts to key Democratic foreign policy advisors. Perhaps we should have done more of that than we did, and earlier, but I am pretty sure we did more of that than the Obama team has done thus far.

I do not doubt that Team Obama reads opinion pieces drafted by people who disagree with them.  But do they engage those people in candid conversation and debate? Do they ensure that the president meets and converses with people who disagree with him? And are those people only critics from the left, or does he also regularly interact in a substantive way with critics from the right?

Perhaps it would be too disorienting at first to reach all the way across the aisle actually to engage the loyal opposition. An easier, but still worthwhile, step would be to reach out to avid supporters who nevertheless see some of the same things that are so obvious to folks on the other side. I am thinking here of Tom Ricks, mentioned above. Or what about other long-time Obama boosters like David Ignatius, who has called Obama "missing in action", and criticized Obama's "passivity" on Syria, and found the Inaugural Address "partisan" and "empty"? Or even Foreign Policy's own Dear Leader, David Rothkopf, who called Obama out for being a "lousy manager"?

Such interlocutors would be sure to sweeten the pill of truth-telling with ritual denunciations of the Bush era. But by drawing attention to Obama's own record, they might help the administration deal more honestly with the debate they face today. And they might even prepare the way for honest conversation across the spectrum of foreign policy views.

I think if Obama actually talked with people who disagreed with him, he would find it harder to sustain the straw-man caricatures of their views. Perhaps he would still end up policy-wise where he is today, but he would make more compelling arguments for those policies. He might even persuade some people he is right. It is a risk worth taking.

Pete Souza/White House

Shadow Government

The U.S. in Mali: Sniping from behind?

We have a problem in Mali: an al Qaeda franchise has taken over most of the country. President Obama only two days ago recommitted the United States to "combat[ing] the scourge of terrorism in the region." An American ally has been working tirelessly to bring the United Nations forward, provide a political solution, organize countries in the region to provide troops, and take the lead in operations. It would seem a perfect illustration of the Obama Doctrine: U.N. mandate, regional buy-in, leadership by an American ally, the United States one contributor among many.

And oh, by the way, the military coup that overthrew a democratic government in Mali, setting off the instability that enabled al Qaeda to prey on the country? That coup was the work of military officers and units trained by the United States. The fighters mowing across the country in conjunction with al Qaeda are veterans of the war in Libya, armed with weapons looted there. They are part of the widespread insecurity that Libya's transition has spawned and U.S. policy has done nothing to attenuate. So we bear some culpability for the terror engulfing Mali. And it is in our security interest -- and in the interest of the administration's vision for the new international order -- to stamp it out.

And yet our ambassador to the United Nations publicly described the French plan as "crap," and delayed U.N. action for weeks. When France commenced military operations to prevent the al Qaeda franchise from overrunning Mali's capital, the Obama administration demanded payment for any military support provided. Ten days into the operation. U.S. officials haven't even decided whether to make requested air-to-air refueling sorties available for French planes. "This is a deliberate effort to consult with the French to assess how best we can support them in the context of support provided by other countries," said Pentagon spokesman George Little.

That's not leading, even from behind. That's undercutting your allies.

It's also incredibly damaging to the United States, even on the terms the Obama administration itself espouses. The White House wants our country to step back from unilateral actions, to have a share but not the lion's share of the work. That requires others to be both willing and able to step forward.

Our European allies have twice in the past couple of years shown themselves willing to lead military operations when we would not. In neither Libya nor Mali has the Obama administration denied that we have an interest in achieving the objectives for which our allies fought, and are fighting. So we agree it needs doing, we just don't want to do it.

Europe has several of the world's most capable militaries; not just Britain and France, but also Denmark, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have all acquitted themselves admirably. But even those militaries lack outright or run short of some of the things that Americans take for granted in our operations: persistent surveillance of battlefields, reliable communications, rapid identification and targeting, the ability to strike promptly, transportation to deploy troops and equipment, precision-guided munitions to minimize unintended casualties, air-to-air refueling to enable strikes from great distances and repeated passes at targets.

That Europeans don't have these "enablers" in sufficient supply is their own fault. They chose to spend their money differently, predictably reducing military prowess and increasing the risk of failure. They mostly ignored decades of American pleading and NATO initiatives to boost defense spending, from the percentage rules of the Carter administration to the current incarnation of "smart defense." And they often spoke of their cultural superiority in spending money on social programs rather than militarism, even while they depended on our militarism. There is in some quarters a smug satisfaction about  the Europeans finally realizing what we've been trying to tell them for so long.

But indulging that schadenfreude is unworthy of us. We want a world in which countries that share our values act to protect and promote those values; otherwise, the hard work all accrues to us. We want allies that see the right and take responsibility for acting to advance it.

Why not expect the Europeans to pay for what they need, especially when the United States borrows 30 cents of every dollar that our own government spends? The Obama administration isn't wrong to try and shift the burden-sharing toward Europeans. But there is a time for negotiating the terms of support to allies. That time is not when they are undertaking a military operation with goals that we support -- nor even when they are undertaking a military operation we don't think is a good idea.  

Denying support in extremis leaves scars -- as Americans well know (Turkey denying us search-and-rescue operations from their territory during the Iraq war, France denying us their airspace during the El Dorado Canyon attacks on Libya, Belgium threatening to close its ports to us in 2003). Our own experience as an ally often in need of support even when governments oppose our policies ought to make us more, not less, willing to help when it counts most.

The French defense establishment had the grace to be embarrassed by their government's choices in 2003. The Obama Pentagon has not expressed similar embarrassment, either with regard to Mali or generally. It is from the Pentagon that the demand for reimbursement emanated. Nor is the fault confined to political civilians. Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States did not want to be complicit in any Israeli strike on Iran. If I were in Tehran, I would interpret that to mean we would deny Israel assistance. Denying France assistance now will reinforce the perception -- both among allies and enemies -- that U.S. allies are on their own.

The Obama Doctrine depends critically on others stepping forward and undertaking the work we are stepping back from. There will be fewer allies willing to do that if we continue to be stingy with our help and generous with our criticism

FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images