WASHINGTON — Reading the devastating memoir by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, people are likely to ask the same troubling questions that emerge from the morning newspapers these days: How did the Obama administration’s foreign-policy process get so broken, and how can it be put back together?
Gates’ book certainly helps answer the first riddle. Obama’s “original sin” in foreign policy, by Gates’ account, was his December 2009 decision to add 30,000 troops in Afghanistan but with limits on the duration of their mission. The president felt jammed by the military into the surge policy, and the White House has seemed to regret it ever since.
“I am giving an order,” said Obama needlessly in the final meeting in the Situation Room when he backed the halfway counterinsurgency strategy from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s menu of options. Gates writes bitterly: “That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership.”
By June 2010, Obama was confiding privately to Gates: “I don’t have the sense it’s going well in Afghanistan. He [McChrystal] doesn’t seem to be making progress. Maybe his strategy is not really working.” This is the ultimate nightmare for a commander in chief, to be caught in a war in which he no longer believes. The Vietnam version broke Lyndon Johnson and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. Afghanistan has badly damaged Obama and his team.
Gates is brutally honest about his former colleagues. But this reader was left wondering why Gates continued serving in an administration “with people talking blithely about the use of military force as though it were some kind of video game.” Why didn’t Gates resign? Perhaps the answer is the same as to why Obama stuck with the policy he doubted: War sometimes doesn’t allow clean options, all-in or all-out. People soldier on as best they can.
White House officials are upset by Gates’ book. But they should use it as an opportunity to examine the deeper question of how the foreign-policy process got so damaged, and what they can do to repair it.
If anything, the situation is worse now than when Gates was at the Pentagon: He was part of the famous “team of rivals” that included strong, confident leaders such as him, Hillary Clinton at State, Leon Panetta at the CIA and then the Pentagon, and Gen. David Petraeus in Kabul and at the CIA. At the center of this process was Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, disliked by Gates as a political commissar but effective at maintaining order among a team whose members, as Gates makes clear, were often seething.
The dream team (with all its dysfunction) has been replaced by a group that is more closely aligned with the war-weary Obama — the president who wanted out of Afghanistan and resisted involvement in Syria. Officials I’ve spoken with are unanimous that, with the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry, this group is weaker and less self-confident. Susan Rice has been nearly invisible as national security adviser at a time when U.S. allies are hungry for contact. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a well-liked former senator, comes across in public as overwhelmed by some of the policy choices facing the Pentagon.
It’s a bad sign that when Hagel was looking for a new deputy secretary to replace Ashton Carter, several top candidates such as former Undersecretary Michele Flournoy weren’t interested. Hagel reportedly has settled on Robert Work, a former undersecretary of the Navy, who gets good marks from former colleagues but isn’t well-known at home or abroad.
The reality is that Obama needs to own his foreign policy. He needs to be more strategic and less political. He needs to set a vision and articulate it to allies and adversaries. His national security adviser needs to help him focus and communicate policy decisions. These criticisms were true in the era Gates describes, when the president was surrounded by strong personalities. It’s even more true now, when the cast is less experienced.
An example of how Obama can drive policy is his approach to Iran. In dealing with Tehran, Obama has been strategic and disciplined, opening the door to negotiations on the nuclear issue and also forming a U.N. coalition for tough sanctions to pressure Iran into dialogue.
Gates admits: “Our ‘team of rivals’ let personal feelings and distrust cloud our perceptions and recommendations.” True, and the damage can be repaired only by the president.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist.