Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Shuffling the National Security Team Deck

In case you haven't heard yet, the President is making some serious moves with his national security team. In the past 24 hours we've heard that AMB Crocker is going to take over as Ambassador to Afghanistan, CIA Director Leon Panetta is going to DoD, and GEN Petraeus is going to CIA, with many more announcements to come, I'm sure. I'm a big fan of all three of these gentlemen - all of them have spent a lifetime of service to the United States and are extremely competent. They are, however, and like the preponderance of the President's national security team, products of previous administrations (Bush, Clinton, and Bush to be specific). This led me to make the following statement on Twitter: "Obama's nat sec team are almost entirely from prev admins. Not how one leaves their mark on the world."

Ex promptly and rightly jumped on me about that, using the Truman administration as an example. I'm sure that's not the only example. So as an universal statement, I was incorrect. I do believe that the Truman example is not exactly apt for the current situation. Truman faced a drastically changing world at the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War and guided his team to establish the basis of U.S. policy for the next forty odd years. While the world is constantly changing, Obama ran on a platform of changing how the United States approaches its defense and foreign policy engagement with the world in a relatively (operative word here) static global environment since 2001 (the Arab Spring may be the exception to this, but we're yet to see how the administration handles it in its totality beyond supporting European military operations). In spite of that platform of change, Obama filled his team with old hands from either the Clinton or Bush administrations or Congress.

I don't see that President Obama has yet left an indelible mark on the world - certainly not as was anticipated - nor is on a glide path to do so. I see that Guantanamo Bay is still open with military trials in the works, we are still in Iraq and have hinted to the Iraqis that we'd like to stay longer, we have escalated in Afghanistan and are talking about being there for the foreseeable future, we still do not have effective engagement with Iran or North Korea, and we have seen our relations with the UK decrease significantly. On the positive side, our relations with France have improved significantly, relations with Russia and China seem to have improved moderately, global public opinion of the U.S. has increased somewhat, and we haven't yet screwed the pooch on the Arab Spring. All things considered, it seems to me that the Obama administration has effectively maintained (second term) Bush admin policies with a smattering of Clinton policies. Not every president needs one, but there certainly isn't an Obama Doctrine. Yet.

I also question the likelihood of one coming about under the current circumstances if he keeps selecting old hands from other admins in the absence of a serious external cause for change (such as another Cold War or 9/11). Granted, an obstinate Congress is a huge impediment to significant change, but these old hands haven't produced the changes Obama's base was hoping for. Reshuffling those old hands doesn't seem to be the method to drive change at this point. Now to pose a question or two to our readers: Is my assessment of the Obama administration accurate? If it is, is the lack of change at least partially because there is little new blood in the national security team? If it isn't accurate, how has he left his mark or how will he and what role does his national security team play in that? If anyone actually reads this, I'm sure it will elicit opinions, so fire away (in accordance with our commenting policy of course).

Of course, this all raises an important issue: where do you find people to fill the highest positions in government if they haven't proven themselves in previous administrations? It's not the President's fault that he's using his predecessors' people - they seem to be the only folks most people trust enough to lead these huge organizations. I haven't the faintest idea where alternate candidates for these positions would come from - so in that I sympathize with the President and don't blame for just moving around those who are already around. He's also not the only president to do this - far from it. At some point though, age will require an infusion of new blood - specifically those people who now hold Deputy Assistant Secretary positions (or did in the Bush administration for the Republicans), but the line-up of the top jobs has been essentially the same for the past 10 years (or 20 in some cases). I don't know how to break this paradigm, or even that it should be broken (maybe expertise and experience is more important than change), but serious internal change, without an external catalyst (such as Truman experienced), in how we do business with the world is most likely to come from people who didn't play a fundamental role to establish the world we are in now.


  1. Let's look at the last few SECDEFs and their backgrounds for a second:

    GATES outside government, former DCI
    RUMSFELD former Member of Congress, ambassador to NATO, White House Chief of Staff, and SECDEF
    COHEN former MoC, Senator
    PERRY former DEPSECDEF, USD (R&E) (Carter-era equivalent to USD (AT&L))
    ASPIN former MoC, Chair of House Armed Services
    CHENEY former WH CoS, MoC
    TAFT two-month fill-in, pan-governmental functioary, Weinberger protege
    CARLUCCI former National Security Advisor, DEPSECDEF, Deputy Director of CIA
    WEINBERGER former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Director of OMB, Chairman of FTC

    So that's looking back THIRTY YEARS, and only Carlucci (a late-in-the-admin promotion from the White House) and Perry could be considered defense professionals. I'm not sure where we got the contemporary idea that the SECDEF traditionally is or ought to be promoted from the ranks, but it's not true. More often it's an ex-congressional pal of the administration who has shown a national security bent, or who advised the campaign on defense matters. The Hamres and Flournoys of the world were always going to be a long shot.

    Ex and I had a conversation about possible candidates over a year ago, and Panetta's name wasn't on the list. (I'm not sure he was on anyone's list.) Frankly, I look back and think our assessment was embarrassingly callow in light of history; we should've been thinking of people EXACTLY like Panetta.

  2. Hasn't Flournoy's name been tossed around quite a bit? Though perhaps, at age 51, she's still not "seasoned" enough for the establishment. And also, granted, much of what I was reading had more to do with her as the hypothetical first female SECDEF rather than anything substantive.

    But I mean, this is actually a recurring and major problem for my generation. As long as there's no upwards mobility, with the the same cadre being shuffled around like a game of musical chairs in which no one loses, it's nearly impossible to break into the field in any meaningful way.

    Of course, this isn't necessarily to knock the quality of any past or present SECDEFs (excepting dear old Rummy), but just to point out that it really IS a long-term issue. There's even a cute name for it: the Prince Charles Problem. A bottleneck at the top definitely casts a ripple effect down the potential line of succession.

    Solving this is the hardest part. Looking back further than 30 years, how did it work? Did those elder statesman, rather than moving laterally, just retire and offer advice from afar? Or remove themselves from public life entirely? And is that even possible in the media climate of today?

    The problem isn't confined to defense, either, but is society-wide. That's a story for another day though.

  3. If people are the independent variable and "change" is the dependent variable, then it's hard to have this discussion, because we haven't elaborated on what is "big" change and what is "little" change. We have no sense of scale on the dependent variable - my common critique of these types of discussions.

    Ever the good Waltzian, state-centric realist, I'll echo my inner Steve Walt and argue, first, people don't matter; structure does. That is of course an heroic simplification, but also a(n) (heroically?) useful one. The structure of the international system is changing slowly, even if it is changing. Sure, there's change, but it's not abrupt, like the end of WW II (emergence of bipolarity), the fall of the Berlin Wall (end of bipolarity), or 9/11 (enter the non-state actor and preemptive war - see next paragraph).

    Even if one relaxes the state-centric assumption, and also allows for events acknowledging we're in two wars, Bush's wars would probably not have ended or changed in content no matter who was elected president (which determines, of course, who's under the president - see Krasner and Art in the early 1970s, in response to Allison's "Essence," on this). It's not clear that the structure of nonstate actors have changed - has Al Queda changed since 9/11 - and the costs of terminating policy would have differed but nonetheless existed irrespective of who occupied the White House or its subsidiary entities. Why expect change?

    As something of a throw-away point, Obama's been in office for two years. That may be the average tenure of people (i.e., appointees) in office, but nonetheless, assessment would seem more fair with more time elapsed. Furthermore, the NSC-68 Foreign Affairs article was written by someone who had spent his entire career observing the Soviet empire and, essentially, writing the essay in advance(see "The Wise Men"); to the extent that this is a new era (and thus, admittedly, by my logic, one in which we should expect change), an impediment to change might be the very fact that this *is* a new era, and very few people in, say, S/P have studied non-state actors (AM Slaughter studied international law, did she not?), and are getting a crash-course on the topic. The flaw in this argument relative to my post as a whole is that it concedes big change - and perhaps, the importance of human agency - occurs most at times of big change (this is not tautological): people matter (create change) when there is the opportunity for them to (moments of big change in the international system, whether defined in terms of states or states and non-state actors). Hence, this would be the very moment for Slaughter, Panetta, Gates, Clinton to make big impacts; the fact that they're doing late-night cramming should not really impact.

    In my opinion, from a Paul Kennedy (and perhaps Chalmters Johnson) perspective, to mirror the excerpts of the Mr Y article I've seen on SWJ, the problems of the US remain largely the same: imperial overstretch, a crumbling infrastructure at home along many dimensions. This is perhaps nothing more than a rhetorical flourish to end the blog post, but perhaps the biggest change one could effect, and that one should expect Panetta *to* effect, would be to cut military spending, end costly wars, and in so doing, contribute (hopefully but certainly not definitely) to an improvement in students who can read, cities that are livable, and the like.


  4. Tell me if I'm far off-base and conspiratorial here...

    I honestly believe that the move of Petraeus to the CIA head is IN PART because of his oft-public announcements that were often counter to what Obama and the administration officially stated, especially regarding Afghanistan. I don't see how Petraeus, with all the political and social clout he carries, will be able to effectively endorse a longer stay in Afghanistan from his shrouded position, especially with the new focus and obligations he will have as CIA head.

    Again, am I far off-base here?

    -Deus Ex


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.