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McDonough’s Elevation and the Obamians’ Ascent

McDonough’s Elevation and the Obamians’ AscentThe pending appointment of Denis R. McDonough, currently President Obama’s deputy national security advisor, as White House chief of staff will have major ramifications for how the administration formulates foreign policy.  First, it underscores the argument in my last post about the subtle but significant policy disconnects between cabinet-level nominees Chuck Hagel and John F. Kerry, on the one side, and the president’s national security inner team, on the other.  Second, it entrenches the decision-making dysfunctions so evident in the administration’s first term.

As I detailed earlier, the national security views of both Hagel and Kerry are decisively colored by their military service in the Vietnam War.  As Hagel puts it in a recent interview in Vietnam magazine, “We are each a product of our experiences and my time in combat very much shaped my opinions about war.”  In contrast, the coterie of foreign policy advisors in the White House is a generation younger and entirely removed from the Vietnam-era policy concerns that dominated the Democratic Party politics until the 2008 presidential election.  This group, which James Mann designates in his illuminating new book as “The Obamians,” has deep personal connections with Mr. Obama forged during his time in the Senate and his first White House campaign.

McDonough, who worked as an Obama Senate aide and is one of his basketball buddies, was born in 1969 – a full year after Hagel was twice wounded by Viet Cong landmines and Kerry started commanding riverboat patrols aimed at interdicting VC supply lines.  He is a charter member of the Obamians and in an exposition of their views Mann quotes him as saying:

There’s a generational issue.  The president’s conception of power is not founded on Vietnam.  This is the first president [since Vietnam] who’s not trying to justify himself in the context of that very tumultuous period.

McDonough was also the one who encouraged Obama to ignore received pieties on national security during the 2008 presidential primaries.  When the candidate started getting flak from Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden, McDonough advised him: “You don’t need lectures on foreign policy from the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment.”

The case of James L. Jones, the president’s first national security advisor, offers an instructive example of the influence McDonough and the other Obamians possess.  A retired general, Jones started as a young officer in Vietnam and then finished his career as commandant of the Marine Corps and NATO supreme commander.  Yet he barely knew the president before coming to work for him and he proved no match with the Obamians, who quickly marginalized him in the White House and, as Bob Woodward reports in his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, even went so far as to cut Jones off from access to Obama during the president’s April 2009 trip to Europe for a NATO summit.  Interestingly, before Jones entered the administration, he served as chairman of the U.S. Atlantic Council, a prestigious private group that is at the core of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.  Chuck Hagel served in the same post until his nomination two weeks ago as defense secretary.

Of course, unlike Jones, Hagel has a personal bond with Obama from their time together in the Senate, and there is no doubt a strong overlap in many of their views.  But their different conceptual starting points are already evident in at least one area: Hagel has taken a much more relaxed position regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions than what Obama has staked out publicly.  The disconnect may have major implications.  As one Middle East policy expert observed in the Washington Post a few days ago, “The Hagel nomination, ironically, has made conflict with Iran more likely by raising doubts about Washington’s commitment to the administration’s stated policy.”

A second consequence of McDonough’s promotion is to reinforce a national security decision-making process that is widely seen as defective.  As Rosa Brooks, a former administration official at the Pentagon, noted recently, the Obamians have created “an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture – one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks.”

A criticism (see here, here and here) running throughout the first term is that the White House’s policy-making machinery has been overly insular, centralized and politicized.  This point was even brought up at the press conference Mr. Obama held last week, and even the administration’s supporters acknowledge, as David Rothkopf did in yesterday’s New York Times, that it “has not done a good job of delegating to and empowering cabinet officials” and that it “provides an object lesson in how, when too many staffers have excessive influence, political calculations often trump good policy choices.”  Brooks adds that the president’s national security clique “appears to view the Cabinet-level departments and agencies as mere implementers of policies created by the White House, rather than as sources of ideas and expertise.”

Examples abound of Obama’s national security aides trying to squelch dissenting views.  According to media reports, Thomas Donilon, the current national security advisor, attempted to shut down politically unpalatable advice from the Pentagon during the administration’s deliberations two years ago regarding the military withdrawal from Iraq.

Donilon is also reportedly (here and here) leading a current effort to oust Gen. James N. Mattis as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Greater Middle East, in part because Mattis is questioning the wisdom of administration policy regarding Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Commenting on the Mattis affair, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist sympathetic to the administration, exclaims:

I am at the point where I don’t trust his national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.

McDonough, in his role as Donilon’s deputy, has likewise been accused of shutting out dissenting voices, as well as so chaotically managing the interagency policy process that, as Brooks puts it, “shallow discussions and poor decisions” result.

Chief of staff selections say much about a president’s management style and policy predilections.  On both counts, McDonough’s promotion may signal trouble ahead as the second term begins.

This commentary was originally posted on Monsters Abroad.  I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.



David J. Karl

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, an analysis and advisory firm that has a particular focus on South Asia. He serves on the board of counselors of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and previously on the Executive Committee of the Southern California chapter of TiE (formerly The Indus Entrepreneurs), the world's largest not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship.

David previously served as director of studies at the Pacific Council on International Policy, in charge of the Council’s think tank focused on foreign policy issues of special resonance to the U.S West Coast, and was project director of the Bi-national Task Force on Enhancing India-U.S. Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy that was jointly organized by the Pacific Council and the Federation of Indian Chambers & Industry. He received his doctorate in international relations at the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the India-Pakistan strategic rivalry, and took his masters degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.