Voice

The Case for Intervention...

In Obama's dysfunctional foreign-policy team.

Read a response to this column here.

Last chance! On Monday, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off on foreign policy. It will be the final debate and President Obama's last major opportunity to convince American voters to give him four more years.

He may not have an easy time of it. In 2008, Obama's principled positions on the Iraq War, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and interrogation policy helped motivate the Democratic base and send him to the White House with a decisive victory. But that was then. Now, Obama's approval ratings have plummeted, both domestically and internationally. For most of his first term, they have been well below the historical average for first-term presidents.

Despite some successes large and small, Obama's foreign policy has disappointed many who initially supported him. The Middle East initiatives heralded in his 2009 Cairo speech fizzled or never got started at all, and the Middle East today is more volatile than ever. The administration's response to the escalating violence in Syria has consisted mostly of anxious thumb-twiddling. The Israelis and the Palestinians are both furious at us. In Afghanistan, Obama lost faith in his own strategy: he never fought to fully resource it, and now we're searching for a way to leave without condemning the Afghans to endless civil war. In Pakistan, years of throwing money in the military's direction have bought little cooperation and less love.

The Russians want to reset the reset, neither the Chinese nor anyone else can figure out what, if anything, the "pivot to Asia" really means, and Latin America and Africa continue to be mostly ignored, along with global issues such as climate change. Meanwhile, the administration's expanding drone campaign suggests a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings -- we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.

Could Obama have done better?

In foreign policy as in life, stuff happens -- including bad stuff no one could have predicted. Nonetheless, to a significant extent, President Obama is the author of his own lackluster foreign policy. He was a visionary candidate, but as president, he has presided over 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. His national security staff is squabbling and demoralized, and though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.

It doesn't have to be this way. If Obama wants to fix his broken foreign policy machine, he can do it -- but conversations with numerous insiders, as well as my own government experiences, suggest that he needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.

Not sexy, I know. But just as a start-up company needs more than an entrepreneurial founder with a couple of good ideas and a nifty PowerPoint presentation, the United States needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.

Here's what President Obama needs to do:

1. Get a Strategy. No, really. We don't currently seem to have one, grand or otherwise. We've got "the long war" -- but we don't seem to have a long game. Instead of a strategy, we have aspirations ("We want a stable Middle East") and we have laundry lists (check out the 2010 National Security Strategy). But as I have written in a previous column, there's no clear sense of what animates our foreign policy. And without a clear strategic vision of the world, there's no way to evaluate the success or failure of different initiatives, and no way to distinguish the important from the marginal.

What does President Obama see as the one or two gravest threats to the United States? What are our one or two biggest opportunities? Is terrorism an existential threat to the United States, or a marginal threat, overshadowed by the long-term dangers posed by climate change, pandemics, and a highly manipulable global financial system? Should we focus on increasing ties in Asia, or focus on our neighbors in Central and South America? Is the United States trying to maintain global preeminence, even if it comes at the expense of other states -- or are we trying to foster a global order in which the United States is but one of many strong countries, all constrained by a robust international network of laws and institutions?

If President Obama lacks a clear strategic foreign policy vision, it's partly because the strategic planning shops within the White House's National Security Staff (NSS) and the State Department have been marginalized and disempowered. Within the NSS, the Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop, without the clout to bring senior officials to the table for longer-term strategy discussions. At the State Department, the Policy Planning office -- once run by such legendary figures as George Kennan and Paul Nitze -- was handed off, after Anne-Marie Slaughter's departure, to a young lawyer whose credentials include ample brains and a stint as a Clinton campaign aide, but no prior foreign policy experience.

If President Obama ekes out a victory on November 6, he should take a strategic pause. He should ensure that influential and credible people are appointed to lead the various strategic planning shops, and insist that his senior officials participate in a process to develop a clear, concise and articulable strategy, one that can guide future U.S. foreign policy and national security decisions.

2. Get some decent managers. The interagency process is in a state of permanent crisis. The schedules of senior officials are constantly disrupted by pop-up Deputies Committee meetings, often called on short notice, with minimal time for preparation and thought. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly scheduled more than 700 Deputies Committee meetings and 200 Principal's Committee meetings between January 2009 and October 2011. Meetings occur at all times of the day and the week, with little prioritization, causing burn-out for exhausted staffers (and reducing institutional memory when the burned out staffers quit after a year or two). Often, the constant meetings produce only inconclusive results. As a friend once put it to me, "It's all churn, no butter."

And although the National Security Staff lacks the personnel or the depth of experience and expertise to be the primary font of policy, the NSS 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. As a result, the schedule and agenda for senior level-discussions is driven almost entirely by a small number of NSS staff, making it difficult for other issues and perspectives to be brought to the fore.

It doesn't need to be that way. President Obama should find some decent managers to run the NSS -- honest brokers who are capable of listening, prioritizing, delegating, and holding people accountable for results.

3. Get some people who actually know something. President Obama promised to ensure transparency and competence in government, but too often, nepotism trumps merit. Young and untried campaign aides are handed vital substantive portfolios (I could name names, but will charitably refrain, unless you buy me a drink), while those with deep expertise often find themselves sidelined.

Cronyism also reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings: increasingly, insiders say, meetings called by top NSS officials involve by-name requests for attendance, with no substitutions or "plus ones" permitted. As a result, dissenting voices are shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights. The result? Shallow discussions and poor decisions.

Here again, President Obama could easily make some useful changes. Why not appoint a commission of experienced former officials from past administrations to work with current officials on developing job descriptions for key positions -- and then insist that mid- and high-level political appointments be justified to the commission? This doesn't prevent the president or other senior officials from bringing in people they know and trust, but it could help ensure that those appointed have at least some minimal qualifications. What's more, President Obama should send his staff a clear message that cliques belong in junior high school, not in the White House. Permitting senior staff to exclude everyone but their favorites from meetings guarantees uninformed group-think.

4. Get out of the bubble. The National Security Staff operates as a tiny fiefdom. Many NSS senior directors say they speak with Tom Donilon only once or twice a year. Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes function as gate-keepers, and even Cabinet-level officials often struggle to get direct access to the president. Some gate-keeping is necessary, of course, but this president lives in as much of an echo chamber as George W. Bush did. Add to this President Obama's even more infrequent contact with the press and his infrequent meetings with members of Congress, and you end up with debate performances like the one the president gave on October 3, in which he seemed surprised and irritated at being challenged in public.

Getting out of his bubble may not come naturally for Obama. As Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, put it in an unguarded moment, "The truth is, Obama doesn't call anyone, and he's not close to almost anyone. It's stunning that he's in politics, because he really doesn't like people." [Ed. note: Tanden later clarified her words, tweeting "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize.]

But if he wants good, candid feedback, President Obama needs to deal with more people. He should increase the number of press conferences he gives, increase the number of formal and informal meetings with members of Congress, and institute at least quarterly town-hall style meetings with his national security staff -- invited based on position, not based on whether they're in the in-club -- and with other senior staff from State, Defense, and AID. He should also create internal "red teams," tasked with pointing out the dangers and flaws of the policy approaches recommended by his senior staff -- and he should require his staff to listen and respond to critics, instead of just repeating administration talking points.

5. Get a backbone. President Obama has sound moral instincts, but he often backs away from them at the first sign of resistance. He came into office with a mandate and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. Had he been willing to use some political capital -- and twist a few arms on the Hill -- in those early months, Guantanamo would be closed, and the United States might have a more coherent approach to national security budgeting. But on these and other issues, the president backed off at the first sign of congressional resistance, apparently deciding (presumably on the advice of the campaign aides who already populated his national security staff) that these issues were political losers.

Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy; the issues became losers because the White House abandoned them. Ultimately, Congress began to view him as weak: a man who wouldn't push them very hard. As a result, Congress pushed back hard on everything, including health care, economic stimulus, and regulation of the financial industry, and Obama was forced to live with watered-down legislation across the board.

If he gets a second term, Obama needs to start thinking about his legacy, and that will require him to fight for his principles, not abandon them. Even if he fights, he won't win every battle -- but if he doesn't fight, he won't win any.

6. Get rid of the jerks. On the campaign trail, Barack Obama famously had a "no assholes" rule, and his staff was legendary for its lack of infighting and drama. Somehow, though, he's managed to populate his national security staff with a fair number of people who seem unable to get along with each other. Insiders say that McDonough and Donilon can barely stand each other, contradicting each other publicly so often that no one's ever sure who really speaks for the president. Both men are also famously rude to colleagues: it's a rare individual who hasn't been screamed at by one or the other. The nastiness demoralizes everyone and sends the message that rudeness and infighting are acceptable.

That's no way to run a railroad. It drives away those not fond of public excoriation or back-stabbing and reduces those who remain to sniveling yes-men. Obama needs to reinstate the "no assholes" rule, hold his senior staff to standards of civilized behavior, and get rid of those who won't change. It's not impossible: the Pentagon under Robert Gates was a remarkably civilized place. As the military knows, command climate matters. The command climate at the NSS is one in which rudeness is tolerated. It shouldn't be.

President Obama came into office with so much good will -- from his own staff, from the American people, and from the world. But through his own unforced errors, he's lost much of that goodwill. To some extent, his errors are errors of inexperience: Obama simply undervalued issues of strategy, structure, process, and personnel. These are understandable mistakes for a first-term president with little prior government experience (or management experience, for that matter). But such errors will be far less excusable if Obama gets a second term. If American voters give Obama four more years, he needs to push the foreign policy "reset" button.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

National Security

Uniformity

Why are all these advocacy groups aligning themselves with the military?

With less than a month of campaigning to go, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are vying to demonstrate their love for all things military. For political candidates, this isn't so unusual: for as long as there have been soldiers, there have been politicians eager to stand beside them and soak up a bit of reflected glory. What's more unusual is how eagerly the rest of us have lined up to imitate the candidates. From human rights activists to nutritionists, everyone now seems to look to the military for some borrowed credibility.

Take human rights. During the Bush administration, human rights organizations struggled to convince Americans to oppose so-called "enhanced interrogation" (that's torture, when it's at home). In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the American public appeared to have little sympathy for abstract arguments about the rights of suspected terrorists. Searching for a more effective way to change public opinion, Human Rights First assembled a group of retired generals and admirals willing to make the military case against torture. In a letter to then-President Bush, the group (which included the former commanding general of CENTCOM) asserted that the U.S. use of torture has "put American military personnel at greater risk [and] undermined U.S. intelligence gathering efforts."

The group of retired officers assembled by Human Rights First remains active today. A few weeks ago, for instance, General Charles Krulak, the former commandant of the Marine Corps, issued a statement under Human Rights First's auspices that called upon Mitt Romney to reject torture: it's "illegal [and] immoral," sure, but it also "undermines both our national security and the order and discipline of our armed forces....[I]t produces unreliable results and often impedes further intelligence collection."

It's not just human rights advocates who have sought to enhance their credibility with the American public by associating themselves with the military. With conservatives taking aim at recent efforts to reduce the caloric content of school lunches and public attention waning, health care advocates have also brought in the big guns: in their case, a group of senior officers who can frame obesity not as a health problem, but as a military recruitment and readiness problem. In a 2010 report called Too Fat to Fight, dozens of retired general and flag officers proclaimed the obesity epidemic a threat to national security. According to the report, more than a quarter of young Americans are now too fat to qualify for military service. This, obviously, is bad news for military recruiters, and for the rest of us, too -- how can a flabby bunch of couch potatoes defend America as we face off against the third world's lean, hungry masses?

Too Fat to Fight goes on to call for the kind of reforms the left generally loves and the right generally hates, such as greater attention to the relationship between poverty, hunger, and obesity; increased federal funding of school lunch programs for the poor; and more government money for "the development, testing and deployment of proven public-health interventions." In September 2012, a follow-up report (Still Too Fat to Fight) funded by foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called for the elimination of junk food in school vending machines -- again in the name of military readiness.

The last decade has seen similar efforts to frame everything from climate change to low-quality public education as military issues. And why not? Obesity and poor nutrition surely will hurt military recruitment and readiness, and the U.S. use of torture surely does endanger troops and produce unreliable information. Similarly, low-quality public education threatens military readiness -- illiterate and innumerate recruits are as bad as obese ones -- and climate change will certainly cause migration and conflict over resources, creating new challenges for the military.

It's more than that, though. In an era in which all military personnel have officially been labeled "heroes," former military personnel make fantastic spokespeople for causes that might otherwise languish. After all, Americans have lost faith in virtually every other profession and public institution: in Gallup's annual study of confidence in institutions, well under half of Americans surveyed in 2012 said they had "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the presidency, newspapers, public schools, television news, banks, business, unions, the criminal justice system, the medical system or organized religion. (Congress, as usual, garnered the confidence of just 13 percent of Americans.) Only the military seems to have been exempted from this epidemic of public cynicism: 75 percent of Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military.

But though I take my hat off to the many organizations that have made creative use of the magic of military endorsements, the trend troubles me. What does it say about us, as a nation, that fewer and fewer issues can gain traction if they're not wrapped in the mantle of military effectiveness?

We see this played out on a larger scale in debates about the federal budget. Both political parties agree that the deficit needs to be brought under control, and though Republicans and Democrats differ in their views on the role of revenue collection (a.k.a. taxes), both parties assert a need for significant across-the-board federal budget cuts...for everything except defense spending, that is.

President Obama proposes slowing the rate of growth of defense spending, essentially by keeping future spending on the base defense budget at current levels, with increases to keep pace with inflation. Mitt Romney considers maintaining current levels of defense spending tantamount to stripping troops of their weapons and body armor, and proposes pegging the base defense budget at a floor of 4 percent of GDP -- essentially tossing another $ 2 trillion at DoD over the next decade.

Given that U.S. defense spending is already higher, in real dollars, than it has been at any time since World War II, it's a little odd that no one -- at least, no one hoping to win an election -- appears willing to contemplate the possibility of genuine cuts to the base defense budget. At least not publicly.

Contrast the Defense Department's future budget prospects with those of many other federal programs. President Obama's proposed budget includes sizeable cuts in many non-defense discretionary programs: the budget for toxic waste clean-up and safe drinking water programs would be slashed, for instance, along with initiatives to help low-income people keep the heat on during the winter and NASA's Mars exploration efforts. And those are nothing compared to the cuts proposed by Mitt Romney's running mate Paul Ryan: Ryan, as Daniel Altman has written, would slash the percentage of GDP that goes into domestic programs to the level prevailing in Equatorial Guinea.

Here's what it adds up to: if you want to get something funded in the United States today, you need to find a way to shoehorn it into the Defense budget. Ever wonder why the military is doing more and more not-so-militaryish things, like operating health clinics in Africa and funding economic development projects in the Philippines? In part, it's because no one else has the money to do it. Funding for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development has drastically fallen over the last two decades. Congress seems increasingly disinclined to fund civilian diplomacy and development initiatives -- but call something a military program, and presto, money falls from the heavens.

I exaggerate -- but not by much. As larger and larger swathes of the federal budget fall victim to Jack the Ripper-style cuts, it's the military that increasingly provides the vital services once provided by other parts of the federal government. Diplomacy and development? Check. Free or low-cost health care? The military provides it to active duty personnel, reservists, retirees, and their dependents -- but just try convincing Congress to fund similar programs outside the military. Military subsidies for higher education have become a route to college for hundreds of thousands of young people, even as federally subsidized grant and loan aid has shrunk in the civilian world. Subsidized childcare? Universal for the dependents of active duty military personnel, but practically extinct for most civilians.

Little wonder, then, that service members have become a must-have accessory for political candidates and issue advocates. Our cynical political culture devalues social welfare programs and snickers at communitarian impulses, and most of us trust neither our neighbors nor the public institutions that are meant to serve us. The distrust is not unmerited, but it's a vicious circle: the more we devalue public programs, the less we fund them and the less they can offer us, so the less we trust them, and so on. The military is all that's left: the last institution standing; the last part of the federal government that works.

No question, there's an element of self-serving jingoism in the efforts of politicians and interest groups to snuggle up with the military -- a desire to benefit from a little heroism-by-association, combined with a shameless appeal to the public's most bellicose and mindless "us versus them" instincts. But perhaps it's more than that. Perhaps we're simply desperate to be reassured that there is an "us" in the first place -- that the United States is something more than simply 300 million people who don't much like or trust one other (and who definitely don't trust their government).

Perhaps we try to associate every issue and platform with the military not because we're self-serving cynics, but because we secretly yearn for a domain that's free of cynicism. The military has come to symbolize those lost American virtues of public-spiritedness, generosity, sacrifice, self-discipline, and service to something larger than the self. It also represents that most elusive of American dreams: a government institution that actually works.

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages