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Obama Should Take Bob Gates’s Criticism to Heart

Photo Credit: Pete Souza

Photo Credit: Pete Souza

In earlier posts (herehere, and here), I argued that the Obama administration’s national security process is plagued by extreme insularity, centralization and politicization.  This is a widely held criticism, regularly repeated not just by the president’s detractors but also former administration staffers and friendly commentators.  And the new revelations by Robert M. Gates, the much-respected national security professional who served as President Obama’s first defense secretary, further punctuate these points.

Gates’s long-anticipated memoir of his two-and-a half years in the Obama Cabinet will be officially released next week.  But according to media accounts, the book is harshly critical of the president’s leadership style and his national security inner team.  The New York Times reports:

The ‘controlling nature’ of the Obama White House and the national security staff ‘took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,’ Mr. Gates writes.

Under Mr. Obama, the national security staff was ‘filled primarily by former Hill staffers, academics and political operatives’ with little experience in managing large organizations. The national security staff became ‘increasingly operational,’ which resulted in ‘micromanagement of military matters — a combination that had proven disastrous in the past.’

According to an account in the Washington Post, Gates claims in the book that the Obama White House “was by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ruled the roost.”

Gates reiterates these themes in an essay appearing in the Wall Street Journal two days ago.  He writes:

Most of my conflicts with the Obama administration during the first two years weren’t over policy initiatives from the White House but rather the [national security staff’s] micromanagement and operational meddling, which I routinely resisted. For an NSS staff member to call a four-star combatant commander or field commander would have been unthinkable when I worked at the White House—and probably cause for dismissal. It became routine under Obama. I directed commanders to refer such calls to my office. The controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches who had actually done the work, offended Secretary Clinton as much as it did me.

A number of observers have noted how the White House operating style under President Obama entails the squelching of dissenting views and the shutting out of unpalatable information.  Gloria Borger, CNN’s chief political analyst, recently quoted a former White House staffer who admitted that “People don’t like to tell [Obama] bad news.  Part of it is the no-drama culture.”  Ron Fournier, the chief political columnist at the National Journalargues that Mr. Obama is …

… surrounded by fawning aides who don’t understand why anybody would object to his policies; thus they are often caught flat-footed by critics. They often put political tactics ahead of governing, protecting the president’s image with narrow-minded zeal.*

And the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein quotes a leading progressive operative whose judgment is more succinct: “These guys are stunningly arrogant. They really believe that their shit doesn’t smell, that they have all the answers. And that arrogance continues to hurt them.”

A year ago, reports emerged that the White House was ousting Gen. James N. Mattis as head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Greater Middle East, in part because he questioned the wisdom of administration policy regarding Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  More recently, Rosa Brooks, who served in the Pentagon’s policy shop in the Obama first term, wrote that many senior military leaders she is in touch with complain…

… of feeling baffled and shut out by a White House National Security Staff that, in their view, combines an insistence on micromanaging minor issues with a near-total inability to articulate coherent strategic goals. ‘The NSS wants to run the show, day to day and minute to minute,’ laments a former military official, ‘so they have no time—they’re almost incapable of strategic thinking.’

Brooks added that a retired senior general tells her that “I don’t understand the process by which the White House is making strategic or foreign-policy decisions. … There’s an appearance of consultation, but you know you won’t be listened to.”

Gates weighs in on this issue by noting that:

All too early in the administration, suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.

The broad dysfunctions Gates identifies are readily evident not only in the administration’s national security apparatus but also in Obamacare’s disastrous launch.  The White House has already started to push back on his criticisms, though a smarter approach would be to take them to heart.  A good place to start is to quietly constitute a small group of “wisemen” to offer recommendations on reforming the administration’s management of national security.

*By the way, for White House sycophancy one cannot do better than this example by Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s closest confidante.

This commentary is cross-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.