The Decider

By

On the evening of Saturday, June 13, a day after the Iranian presidential election, Vice President Joe Biden was preparing for an appearance the next morning on NBC's "Meet the Press." Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian incumbent, was already claiming a preposterously large margin of victory, and reformist protesters were clashing with basiij thugs in Tehran. The Obama administration faced a delicate and fluid situation, and it was far from clear what Biden should say. In circumstances like these, the vice president--especially this vice president--could not simply wing it. The administration needed to present a united front buttressed by clear talking points.

In the normal course of Washington events, the creation of talking points often involves several aides, who bicker and rewrite for hours until they've come up with a simple message for their boss. In the Bush administration, that process might have been perverted so that the vice president was telling his nominal boss what to say. But the Obama administration apparently operates differently. Rather than calling in his top foreign policy aides or formulating a stance that advanced his own agenda, Biden turned directly to Barack Obama. "The vice president said, 'What do you want me to say?' And the president and the vice president sat down and did them together," explains a senior White House aide. "And then they presented them to us."

When Obama came to office six months ago, he seemed likely to be consumed by domestic politics: The economy was on the brink of collapse, and health care and global warming bills were urgent priorities. His high-powered foreign policy team, led by Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and a holdover defense secretary in Robert Gates, suggested that Obama was prepared to outsource the management of world affairs to people with something more than his four years of experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Indeed, the composition of his diplomatic team--filled with egos as large as Richard Holbrooke's--suggested that, even if the president wanted to personally manage foreign policy, he wouldn't be able to.

Six months later, however, these assumptions have been shattered. Whether he is shaping the White House's message on Iran, or personally cajoling Asian leaders to crack down on North Korea, or brokering power deals among NATO allies, Obama has, in effect, been his own national security advisor and secretary of state. Unlike Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, who had world events thrust upon them, Obama seems to be more in the mold of Richard Nixon or George H.W. Bush--a president involved in foreign policy because of, not in spite of, his priorities and personal interest. "He's very engaged, very hands-on," says his longtime foreign policy adviser, Mark Lippert, now chief of staff at the National Security Council (NSC).

Obama brought to the presidency a set of clear strategic goals: He wanted to engage Iran and restart negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians; he wanted to pull back from Iraq and ramp up efforts in Afghanistan; he wanted to reach out to the Muslim world and burnish America's reputation abroad. But, when you talk to the president's senior staff, you find that, much as they like touting Obama's wisdom on the global chessboard, they are just as proud of how his administration has handled the process of foreign policy. They are the ultimate organization men and women.

To this administration, process is not simply the poor cousin of strategy. Process is what allows harmony and progress amid multiple challenges and viewpoints. Senior Obama aides call it "regular order"--a system that gives the president a diversity of views with minimal infighting and back-channel maneuvering, little leaking to the press, and no public airing of dirty laundry. "Regular order is your friend," says Denis McDonough, director of strategic communications for the NSC. "The system only works if you have adult behavior."

Thus far, the system has confounded skeptics who predicted melees among big-name advisers and conservatives who warned that Obama lacked the experience to govern in such dangerous times. "The level of harmony is just striking," says James Goldgeier, a national security aide in the Clinton White House and a political scientist at George Washington University. There are signs, however, that the administration's approach to foreign policy, however well-intentioned and well-executed, is vulnerable to unexpected challenges--the very kind that are likely to multiply the longer the president is in office.

 

You might call the president's fixation on process the latest iteration of "No Drama Obama"--a continuation of the radical discipline Obama's team honed during the 2008 campaign, when the candidate required his advisers to hash out debates in structured internal settings and, then, to fully support his final decision. Certainly, it served Obama well in comparison to his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, whose campaign degenerated into bitter (and all-too-publicized) infighting.

Colin Powell once called the national security apparatus "a manifestation of the personality of the president." That observation holds for Obama. But this administration's emphasis on process goes beyond the president's character. It is also a function of lessons learned from the office's previous occupants. Consider Bill Clinton. In the fall of 1993, Clinton's national security team was a mess. Like Obama today, the new president was focused on the economy and plans for a major overhaul of health care. Communism had collapsed, and foreign hotspots were relatively few and far between, but even so, many of the president's foreign policy advisers were unsure of themselves and what the president wanted from them. "I confess," then-National Security Advisor Tony Lake wrote in a longhand memo to Clinton, "to a series of constant and growing frustrations--partly at the interagency difficulties in pushing through new approaches as hard times bring out new hesitancies and partly with a White House that ... still treats foreign policy as [a] 'wholly owned subsidiary.'" The result was a series of first-year fiascos--from gays in the military, to the "Black Hawk Down" episode in Somalia, to a poorly managed crisis in Haiti. By October 1993, Clinton was openly berating Lake in the Oval Office.

Despite the ostensibly all-star team that George W. Bush brought to the White House--or, perhaps, because of it--his administration was plagued by similar dysfunction. For eight years, hawks like Dick Cheney, John Bolton, and Donald Rumsfeld fought to undercut the more pragmatic policies pushed by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and the diplomatic corps. During the Iraq war, relations between Rice and Rumsfeld reportedly deteriorated to the point where the secretary of defense had to be ordered to return the national security advisor's phone calls. Cheney assembled a staff of more than a dozen foreign policy advisers in what amounted to his own shadow national security council. The result was a schizoid approach to some of the most important security issues facing the president, including postwar planning and pre-war intelligence related to Saddam Hussein's nuclear program and Al Qaeda ties.

Partly as a result, the Obama team set out to create a strong national security team with power centralized in the White House. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, then-National Security Advisor Rice sought to whittle the NSC staff by a third. By contrast, Obama's national security advisor, Jim Jones, set out to empower the NSC. On February 23, Obama signed Presidential Directive 1, dramatically expanding the NSC to include several new cabinet officials in the council's principals meetings, including the attorney general, the secretaries of energy and homeland security, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

In its early months, Obama's team has only redoubled its belief in regular order, thanks in part to what it--and others--saw as an early failure. After the president signed a January order calling for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, top White House officials, including chief counsel Greg Craig and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan, began an extensive review of how to deal with the 240 foreign detainees still held there. In April, word leaked that Obama might seek to resettle in the United States several Chinese Uighurs at Guantanamo who had been deemed not to be a terrorist threat. Discussions of the Uighurs had reached the senior-most levels of the NSC process, including a principals meeting attended by cabinet secretaries. The White House had carefully considered the legal and security implications of such a move--but, contrary to standard operating procedure, it had not adequately prepared members of Congress, some of whom say they were promised ample warning about any resettlements in the United States and then blindsided by the news leaks.

The fallout was fast and furious. Members of Congress, including senior Democrats like Harry Reid, grandstanded as anti-terrorism tough guys and vowed that no "terrorists" would ever be allowed on U.S. soil. Never mind the lack of realistic options for placing dozens of detainees elsewhere and the possibility that closing Gitmo might now take more than a year. The controversy was a huge setback for administration officials trying to convince allies abroad that it's safe to take in "cleared" Guantanamo detainees. White House national security officials say that, when it comes to Guantanamo, their initial process failed. "We got outside regular order," explains McDonough.

 

But the Gitmo snafu is the exception that proves the rule. In general, Obama's team has unfurled its policy initiatives with surprising smoothness. In mid-March, top administration officials, including Obama, Jones, Biden, Clinton, Holbrooke, and military leaders, conducted a 90-minute debate about troop levels in Afghanistan. Biden led a group pressing for limited troop deployments and a narrow counterterrorism mission focused squarely on Al Qaeda. Clinton and Holbrooke argued for a more ambitious counterinsurgency mission and a civilian surge to stabilize Afghanistan. Obama ultimately synthesized the two views into a middle course, delivering an address describing the U.S. mission as narrowly focused on hunting terrorists--but also vowing to add 4,000 troops to train Afghan forces and to improve civil society in Afghanistan. Although the broad contours of the internal debate would later leak into the media, there was no public evidence of second-guessing or wounded pride, and the Obama team has since supported the policy with remarkable uniformity.

There is some irony in the Obama administration's harmonious foreign policy-making, given that the man ostensibly coordinating it--Jim Jones--has been the target of a whisper campaign about his job performance. His critics say the former Marine general is aloof from the White House bustle, bicycling home to McLean for lunch, and, at times, even forgetful. The chatter grew loud enough that Secretary Gates felt obliged to offer public words of support for Jones. ("He only works twelve hours a day," says one angry Jones defender outside the White House. "He's not trying to burnish his resume like every other asshole." Jones told me that he pays little attention to press coverage and he doesn't feel the need to demonstrate his influence, although he adds that sometimes, he will linger after a meeting to put a thought in the president's ear "after everyone else does.")

But Jones's disfavor has been overstated. Though he lacks the close personal bond with Obama enjoyed by former campaign aides like McDonough and Lippert, he is at the president's side in nearly every important foreign policy meeting--from his audience with the Pope to his sit-down with Vladimir Putin. Obama's self-confidence allows Jones to be less assertive than some of his predecessors. And, as a military man, Jones shares Obama's strong belief in process. In a May 27 speech to the Atlantic Council, Jones joked that he was still trying to impose military-style discipline on some subordinates. "I'm finding that an order is a basis for negotiation," Jones joked."But we're getting there."

Earlier this month, when I visited Jones in his corner office, which is spacious only by the cramped standards of the White House, he was reading a black briefing binder, which he quickly snapped shut. A large American flag hung from a tall pole by his desk. His computer monitor was in screen saver mode: solid bright green, with the black letters TOP SECRET SCI slowly scrolling past. Jones, wearing a jacket, tan pants, and brown tasseled loafers, spoke with a quiet, almost laconic, manner. He explained the value the Obama team places on internal harmony between the government's disparate cabinets and agencies, from State to the Pentagon to the CIA, when making decisions. What about the "team of rivals"? I asked. "The people he picked are working hard to make sure it didn't work out that way," he replied. Obama takes care to ensure that everyone feels their voice is heard, Jones said, thereby minimizing the risk that the disgruntled loser of a policy fight will go to the press with dissenting views or try to subvert the process. "The process is extraordinarily inclusive," Jones explained. "No one gets left out."

More than anyone, that mandate falls to Jones's deputy, Tom Donilon. While Jones oversees the national security structure from above, it is Donilon who spends the most time sitting down with lesser-known officials from across the government to flesh out policy options before they reach the Oval Office. "He's the key guy setting the parameters of national security policy discussion and decision-making," says one person familiar with the NSC system. Even more so than Jones, in fact, Donilon is foremost a process guy. A lawyer by training, Donilon made his name as a political operative under Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale--"a fierce partisan," says a friend--later playing key roles in Joe Biden's 1988 and 2008 presidential bids. When, in the Clinton administration, his law-firm colleague Warren Christopher became secretary of state, Donilon followed him to Foggy Bottom as Christopher's chief of staff. Today, Donilon leads what in government parlance are known as "deputies meetings," in which second-tier officials coordinate policies and hash out competing positions before either reaching decisions or kicking issues up the chain to "principals meetings"--which usually feature cabinet secretaries, Jones, and Biden. In a busy stretch, Donilon might lead as many as four deputies meetings in one day. Afghanistan is a topic of a standing weekly meeting in the White House basement situation room.

As a veteran of Bill Clinton's administration, Donilon has been instrumental in helping the Obama team avoid the early pitfalls of the last Democratic presidency. "It took a while for that White House to get its sea legs in terms of process," says one senior Obama White House aide. Under Obama, explains the aide, the NSC makes a deal with the administration personnel who plead their policy cases at the White House: Debates will be transparent and open, with quick and crisp decisions, and--in a new innovation--meeting summaries are distributed widely and within 24 hours to ensure no one is left in the dark. In return, deputies who lose arguments must promise not to pull end-runs around the system.

So far it has worked. Take the example of Richard Holbrooke, whose famed bureaucratic maneuvering and media-friendliness runs directly counter to Obama's no-drama ethos. Six months in, Holbrooke has caused surprisingly little trouble. He reports directly to Hillary Clinton, doesn't visit the White House without her (one known exception being when Clinton fell and broke her elbow in a State Department garage, but granted Holbrooke permission to carry on without her), and has generally deferred to her in the meetings there. True, Holbrooke has tussled with Douglas Lute, who oversees the military campaign in Afghanistan at the NSC, over establishing benchmarks for progress in that country. And, in at least one instance earlier this year, Holbrooke received an angry phone call from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel after the diplomat was perceived to have stepped on Obama's public message about the war effort. But, in general, one administration foreign policy official says, "He hasn't acted like a showboat. He's kept a low profile. By his standards, he's a pussycat!" A small triumph of process.

 

The administration's emphasis on process would not work, however, if Obama did not have a clear sense of where he wanted to take foreign policy and the confidence to put himself in charge of it. He was, for example, up-front from the outset about his desire for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, and one former Bush administration official who worked on Middle East policy and remains in touch with officials overseas says that Obama seems to be personally driving the early effort to restart the peace process. "The president is quite involved," says the former Bush official. "It's not being done by [George] Mitchell, who every of couple months reports in. It is being managed by the president, who gives him instructions."

From the start, Obama has played the role of global leader with a certain relish. On his first trip overseas, an April visit to nato's annual summit in Strasbourg, Obama confronted an unexpected diplomatic snafu. Turkey was blocking the choice of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to become nato secretary general. Obama sprang into action, conducting unscripted meetings with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, and, then, later brought Gul and Rasmussen together. His intervention, coupled with a promise that Rasmussen would appoint a Turkish deputy, broke the deadlock. At a similar point in his presidency, George W. Bush may still have been relying on flashcards to learn foreign leaders' names. "This is just something he's naturally good at," Jones told me.

You hear that a lot from Obama's advisers. Unlike Clinton and Bush 43 during their first years, Obama doesn't seem to doubt himself or question his own authority when it comes to matters of state. "He's not intimidated by the foreign policy apparatus," says Lippert. He has created a system in which internal debate is open and, rather than accept prepackaged policy options, he can personally test his advisers' theories and assumptions. At times, some officials say, Obama can seem as though he understands the issues as well as--or better than--some of the experts around him. "He's very comfortable in feeling that he 'gets it,'" says another senior administration official, "and maybe he's better about crystallizing and encapsulating than others might be."

Of course, Obama has thus far enjoyed the luxury of managing a generally proactive foreign policy. He has mainly pursued a strategic vision he devised as a presidential candidate. He has reaffirmed his desire to leave Iraq, delivered on his promise to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, spoken in Prague about his vision for a world without nuclear weapons, reached out to Iran through his March Nowruz message, and extended a hand to the Muslim world with an address in Cairo. "These are things the president said he would do in the campaign," says Ben Rhodes, a NSC speechwriter and policy adviser. In that sense, what Obama has needed, at least to date, is not so much strategists as implementers, process men like Donilon and Jones who can coordinate the government around his agenda.

The unanswered question is how Obama's confidence and emphasis on process will serve him in the months and years to come, as he begins to reap the fruits--or a lack thereof--of his strategic vision. Process only works if the assumptions underlying the strategy it is meant to implement are correct, but, as nations begin to respond to Obama's initiatives, those assumptions may be tested--from Jerusalem to Moscow. Already, we have seen one hitch in the Obama model: Iran.

 

If the talking points that Obama and Biden crafted after the Iranian election revealed the novelty of the administration's approach to foreign policy, they also revealed its limits. The vice president's first reaction to the popular uprising in Tehran was cautious--"we don't have enough facts ... to make a firm judgment," Biden said--as was Obama's public commentary in the days to come, including his assertion that little substantive difference exists between Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi. It was only after Iranian regime goons had been beating and killing protesters for days that Obama took a harder line, calling the crackdown "unjust" and invoking Martin Luther King Jr.'s "arc of the moral universe." With his evolving and notably mild response, Obama and his foreign policy advisers appeared for the first time to be unsure of themselves. One senior administration official, while defending Obama's response, acknowledged that it was fair to question how the White House had handled the election fallout. "We're in uncharted waters," the official says.

That much is clear. But Obama's team thought it had the waters well-charted. A thorough administration review of Iran policy lasted from January into the spring. It considered the possibility of dialogue and the prospects for economic sanctions. But it never foresaw an anti-regime uprising. ("The Iranians themselves were surprised by this," notes the official. "They certainly wouldn't have had 500 reporters there if they weren't.") The chaos from Tehran to Shiraz challenged the early model of Obama's foreign policy in two ways. First, it tested the limits of the administration's vaunted process. White House officials boast that Obama makes "crisp" decisions. But his response after the Iranian election was rather soggy. It's not precisely clear why. Had he been too wedded to a policy of engagement that had emerged from a very deliberate process? His statement quoting King sounded more convincing, more like the authentic Obama, than did his earlier notes of caution, suggesting that, in this case, neither process nor his instincts had served him well.

Perhaps more significantly, the Iranian uprising defied the simplicity of implementing Obama's strategic vision. Obama believed he could reverse the Bush administration's course and negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program. But the difficulty of that approach has now been amply demonstrated. Not only did Ahmadinejad fail to respond to the president's initial overtures, but talking to him now could be seen as lending legitimacy to a contested regime with blood on its hands.

However much of a "natural" he may be, there are clear limits to Obama's confidence in managing foreign affairs. "He knows what he doesn't know," says Lippert. That may be why Obama recently bolstered his NSC team, transferring Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East negotiator and the administration's current point man on Iran, from the State Department to the NSC. Obama is said to have wanted more strategic depth on his White House team, but also some added tactical prowess. (Obama was reportedly also disappointed that a June stop in Riyadh yielded no gestures toward Israel from the Saudi royals and wanted someone with Ross's experience in the region closer to his side as he manages the Middle East peace process.)

An awareness of those limitations is probably well-advised. For, in the months to come, there will be, of course, many more crises. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq may not go smoothly. Whether Afghanistan can be tamed and Pakistan can be stabilized are open questions. North Korea remains intractable. Al Qaeda could strike again at any time. At this point in 2001, George W. Bush was just receiving a memo about Osama bin Laden's intention to strike the United States.

For now, says one former Clinton administration official closely versed in current U.S. foreign policy, Obama is maintaining order by "playing that role of the genius foreign policy president. And, as long as he does that, this system can work. But the biggest problem out there is that it is extremely difficult to imagine that even Barack Obama can keep up this juggling act for four or eight years. He is going to get distracted." White House officials say that they have explicitly planned for the stress that a major and extended crisis abroad will place on their policy-making structure. But some acknowledge that it's impossible to know whether they are truly prepared. "There is a definite humility and cognizance that, while things have gone well so far, there will be big tests," says one senior White House aide. "At some point, maybe sooner rather than later we're going to screw up mightily on something, and then we'll see how everyone reacts."

Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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