Wednesday, March 31, 2010

State-Croft in the Obama Administration, cont.: the Deputies' Committee

A detailed portrait of the Obama administration's foreign policy apparatus by the FT's Edward Luce and Daniel Dombey presents a mixed bag, a work in progress.  One key facet  has an interesting pedigree: personnel from the Clinton administration slotted into a structure adapted from the administration of George Bush, Sr.  That is the "deputies' meetings":
Mr Obama’s character is also stamped on the inter-agency process, set up and managed by Tom Donilon, deputy national security adviser. The nitty-gritty of foreign policy-making is done at these frequent “deputies’ meetings”, which can sometimes consume four to six hours a day
Described by one insider as “the most powerful man in the White House whose name isn’t widely known”, Mr Donilon, who was an official in the Clinton administration, is the man who keeps Mr Obama’s trains running on time. And there are a lot of trains. Last year, Mr Donilon held 270 deputies meetings – a workload described as “clinically insane” by a former senior diplomat under Bill Clinton.

But as time goes on, it is becoming streamlined – now taking up roughly two to three hours a day, say officials. “People forget that we inherited two wars, terrorism threats, and perhaps the biggest single eight-year decline [George W. Bush’s two terms] in America’s power and reputation in our history,” says a senior official. “It took time to put in place a process that could deal with the very complex decisions we had to take.”

Also the organiser of Mr Obama’s 9.30am national security briefing, Mr Donilon reinstated the paper trails needed to prevent intra-governmental anarchy, using the model de­vised by Brent Scowcroft, national se­curity adviser to George Bush senior and Gerald Ford. Vice-president Joe Biden’s team was also incorporated to prevent the kind of “parallel process” Dick Cheney used to circumvent the bureaucracy under George W. Bush.

“If you look for the 2002 or 2003 meeting where the decision to go to war in Iraq was taken, you cannot find it,” says the senior official. “By getting the process right, we are improving the quality of decisions.”

The deputies’ ties go back years. For example, the families of Mr Donilon and Jim Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, often go on holiday together. Mr Donilon’s wife, Cathy Russell, is chief of staff to Jill Biden, the vice-president’s wife. Mr Steinberg’s wife, Sherburne Abbott, is deputy to John Holdren, Mr Obama’s chief scientific adviser.

All those who regularly attend, including Michèle Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official, and Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, have known each other since at least 1993, when they started off in the Clinton administration. This is just as well, since they spend half their lives together: “A lot of work gets done in that group,” says Ms Flournoy. “Sometimes it feels like shovelling coal to keep the fires going” (my emphasis)
The deputies' meeting was a major laboratory of policy in the administration of George H. W. Bush, for whose foreign policy team Obama has often expressed admiration.  In Donilon's seat as deputy national security advisor was a certain Robert M. Gates. Here is Gates' rather self-serving characterization of the Deputies Committee he chaired in his memoir, From the Shadows:
My main job, apart from support to the President and Scowcroft, was to oversee the interagency NSC process--policy and contingency planning, the development of policy options, the decision-recommending and decision-making process, and management of day-to-day national security operations.  All administrations have had a senior-level interagency group to carry out this function, with varying degrees of success. Ours, called the Deputies Committee,...would develop the medium- and long-range objectives of U.S. policy and would manage U.S. policy day to day ....

The personal chemistry was right, the talent was there, the group had the confidence of our superiors, all were experienced hands, egos were under control, and everyone had the final ingredient to success--a great sense of humor. What is hard for historians to discern from dry documents is the importance of these flesh-and-blood relationships in making government work. The friendships--and-trust--that developed among the core members of the Deputies Committee in 1989-1991 not only made the NSC process work, but cut down dramatically on the personal backstabbing and departmental jockeying that had been so familiar. Also, we never forgot that it was our bosses and ultimately the President who made the final decisions, not us  (458-459).

At the same time, Gates portrays himself as extremely close to his boss, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, and Scowcroft as a supremely trusted intimate of Bush.  In marked contrast, the FT account, like many others, portrays National Security Adviser James Jones as disconnected from the bureaucracy and not particularly close to Obama.

And while Luce and Dombey portray Donilon's group as designed in part to undo the institutional damage to the decision-making process wrought by Dick Cheney's bypass of George W. Bush's foreign policy team, they also imply that a different inner circle may be stovepiping to a degree. That circle is allegedly led by "Denis McDonough, NSC chief of staff and the foreign policy official who is personally closest to Mr Obama":
Indeed, if Mr Obama’s highly centralised foreign policy machine had a face, it would be Mr McDonough’s. “Donilon has been perceived to make the process inclusive and give everyone a seat at the table,” says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton official and scholar on the NSC. “Fairly or not, McDonough has been perceived as representing a process that was taking place in another room, among the inner circle, at a table to which most weren’t invited.”
It's worth noting that the two main sources for the inner circle portrait, Rothkopf and Leslie Gelb, have both been outspoken critics at times of the Obama foreign policy team (samples: Gelb here, Rothkopf here).   On the other hand, neither is an ideological opponent (or full-time critic); their procedural criticisms here may be central to their views of what's gone wrong so far.

Luce and Dombey's closing assessment of Obama's statecraft is nuanced, subtle, worth quoting in full:

Mr Obama has built a machine in which all roads lead to and from him. On the minus side, that means a lot of lower-level meetings without decisions. It also means neglecting issues that cannot be squeezed into his diary, such as trade policy, which continues to drift; or relations with India, which are unnecessarily tense.

And it means that the fingerprints of Mr Obama’s political inner circle are detected by the rumour mill even when they are absent, such as on the president’s decision to begin the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2011 – a recommendation that came from Robert Gates, secretary of defence.

On the plus side, Mr Obama has a sharp learning curve, which means his administration continues to evolve.

On the plus side also, if it has to be White House-centric, it is perhaps better with him as the Sun King than, say, Nixon or George W. Bush.

“At the end of each meeting, the president summarises 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.”

When Mr Obama makes a decision, that is.

I am reminded of George Marshall's complaint about Harry Truman:  "He decides too fast." Has there ever been a President (or human) who didn't decide either too fast or too slow?

Related post: Son of Bush Sr.? Obama prepares for state-croft (Nov. 23, 2009)

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