Shadow Government

Two new questions for Hagel's confirmation hearing

The weekend's reading in the Washington Post turned up two intriguing bits that could profitably be explored in Senator Hagel's forthcoming confirmation hearings. Neither is a game-changer or a show-stopper. I continue to believe he will be confirmed and I expect he will have plausible answers to both of these questions. But it would be revealing to hear those answers and the process of thinking them through might even help him be a better secretary of defense.

First, what does the Obama administration consider to be the necessary legal conditions for the use of force abroad? The question arises out of an interesting bit in Saturday's story about internal deliberations over whether and how much to assist the French in the Mali operation. There are numerous legal hurdles, including some domestic ones related to assisting governments after a coup (among its myriad troubles, Mali suffered a coup last year). But the part that interested me was this brief reference to other international legal hurdles:

"At the same time, U.S. officials were unsure whether they could legally aid France's military operations without a United Nations or other international mandate."

Now, I well understand the political desirability of international mandates, and I also know what the UN Charter stipulates. Since the Mali government asked for aid -- no, begged for aid -- the self-defense exception of the UN charter would seem to be easily met. Perhaps there was some legal confusion regarding whether a post-coup Mali regime was more legitimate than the militant islamists attacking the government from the north? Or perhaps there was something else at work, with the Obama administration entertaining a more stringent standard than U.S. governments had hitherto required for military action? If the latter, that would seem to be quite newsworthy with profound implications for coercive diplomacy in other settings: does the Obama administration believe it has the requisite legal predicate for military action in Iran (setting aside the policy wisdom of such action), or would it require a new and specific UNSCR or NATO authorization? What are legal options if we have neither a new UNSCR nor NATO authorization?

Second, what specifically did Senator Hagel find lacking about civilian control of the military during the past 6 years? This question arises out of a quote attributed to Hagel from today's opinion piece by Bob Woodward: "'The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,' Hagel said privately in 2011."

Now Hagel's quote covers a lot of history, including the stormy 1990s when serious questions were raised about the quality of civilian control. While an historical disquisition on the evolution of civilian control since 1992 from the secretary-nominee would be fascinating, for the sake of time and focus I would encourage the Senators to ask Hagel to answer just with respect to the last several years, covering the tenure of Secretaries Gates and Panetta. In what ways does Hagel consider the Pentagon to have been out of "commander-in-chief control" during that period?

This second question might be the more important one. After all, Hagel is not the lawyer who will be deciding the Obama administration's interpretation of international law. His hearings do provide an important opportunity for Congress to ask such questions to key officials under oath, however, so it is worth asking.

But the second question goes to the very heart of Hagel's job. As secretary of defense, he will be the interface between the political White House and the uniformed military -- something like the ball-bearings or even the grease in the ball-bearings of civil-military relations. He will be the single most important civilian working 24-7 on the civilian control issue. Understanding his theory of civil-military relations is crucial for helping the Pentagon (both civilian and military tribes therein) prepare for his arrival. And I can think of few better ways to clarify his expectations than for him to explain how he believes Gates and Panetta failed to bring the Pentagon under "commander-in-chief control."

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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