The Team of Buddies

Is President Obama’s national security team too like-minded and conservative about the limits of American power?

On Feb. 20, 2008, Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel found themselves standing on a remote and snowbound mountain road in the vast wilderness of Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan. They had been flying back from an army outpost to Bagram Air Base when a snowstorm forced their helicopter to make an emergency landing. Their lives were never in danger; but three or four hours would elapse, and night would fall, before a convoy from Bagram could reach the group and ferry them back to safety. Naturally, one wonders what these three members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said to one another while awaiting rescue. I recently learned the answer.

After a heartwarming anecdote about how Grandpa Al survived the Donora Blizzard of 1938, Biden said, "Some day soon, I'm going to be vice president, you're going to be secretary of state, and you're going to be secretary of defense -- and we're going to show that bright and clean and nice-looking black guy how to run the world."

Okay, that part I haven't been able to corroborate yet, but the rest of the story has been the subject of news accounts. Hagel told me about the trip in a 2009 conversation. He also told me that he and Biden had traveled all over the world together, that nobody knew national security like Biden did and that the vice president was dead right about the futility of an ambitious counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Oh, and on the 2008 trip, which had also included India and Pakistan, Biden and Kerry had concluded that the United States had to make a large-scale aid commitment to Pakistan -- the origin of the legislation ultimately known as Kerry-Lugar-Berman.

With Kerry now confirmed as secretary of state, and Hagel now undergoing a ritual scourging which will almost certainly lead to confirmation as secretary of defense, Barack Obama's national security team will be lead by an old boys club whose members have traveled, advised, and pooled ideas with each other for years. The fourth member of the club, national security advisor Tom Donilon, said to me a few years back that he could hardly remember a time when he didn't know Biden. Donilon's new deputy, Antony Blinken, is Biden's former chief foreign policy aide. Biden once told me that he was one of Kerry's few good friends in the Senate, and saw himself as Kerry's "interlocutor" with the White House.

I always thought that the "team of rivals" imagery from 2009 was way overdone, but it's true that none of the senior figures knew one another well, and Obama had to deputize Biden to smooth friction among them. That's over; now the national security team looks like a golfing foursome.

Does it matter? In another interview, in 2011, Hagel told me that Kerry, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "bolstered Joe Biden's global view of strategic issues and international affairs." Hagel's point was that Biden very much needed the help, since the people then closest to President Obama -- David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel -- knew very little about the world. Strategic thinking had been missing from the White House, Hagel said, since the administration of the first George Bush. Hagel was hardly the only person to complain that foreign policy in Obama's first term was driven by political calculation and ad hoc reactions. It's reasonable to hope that the execution of foreign policy in Obama II will be less reactive and more consistent.

But what about the content? The first thing that needs to be said is that the identity and views of Obama's chief advisors will not change the president's obvious wish to narrow the scope of American foreign policy: to withdraw from existing military entanglements and avoid new ones, so as to save his political capital for the epochal battles to come over taxes, entitlements, immigration, and gun control. And it's hard to believe that an increasingly confident president will choose to exercise less, rather than more, control over the formulation of national security policy. If the Afghanistan policy debate of 2009 occurred today, Obama would wrap it up much more quickly and decisively.

That said, foreign policy, unlike domestic affairs, is fundamentally unpredictable, and the president is bound to face a great many decisions for which he is unprepared. The collective voice of The Team of Buddies could still tip the balance. And in many ways it will be a collective voice. Not only Hagel, but also Kerry, told me that he thought Biden was right on Afghanistan -- though Kerry said that he felt that he should not publicly oppose Obama, at that early moment in his tenure, on a supreme question of war and peace. All three, that is, have enough experience of the world to be wary of grand schemes, and to be inclined to choose the more modest of proffered alternatives. All three are classic "realists" in their regard for prudence, which Hans Morgenthau described as the statesman's watchword. When Hagel talked about "strategic thinking" he meant "seasoned professionalism" rather than, say, "intellectual coherence." Kerry and Biden would subscribe to the same definition.

The differences among them strike me as temperamental rather than ideological, though being out of power has given Hagel the luxury to utter heterodox opinions which he is now furiously reeling in, like his skepticism about the effectiveness of tough sanctions on Iran. Among the three, Hagel has perhaps the most deep-seated conviction about the limits of American power, which is what the conservatives who are gunning for him find the most intolerable. He told me in 2009, at a time when Biden was shuttling between Washington and Baghdad, that "there's very little we can do" about Iraq.

If Hagel would be the strongest advocate of "do less," Kerry would be the proponent of "do more." On my 2011 trip with him to Pakistan and Afghanistan, he told me that a precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to a civil war, with disastrous consequences for the United States as well as for Afghans. Kerry might be inclined to leave more troops there than either Biden or Hagel. And unlike those two, Kerry also supported the intervention in Libya. Kerry seems to have more of his foreign-policy idealism left intact than Biden does, or than Hagel ever had. It is easier to imagine him calling for a significant American role in a future Mali-type engagement than Biden or Hagel. Still, these are differences at the margin.

Of course, Kerry, Hagel, and Biden are not very much different from Clinton, Gates, and Biden. Perhaps the biggest difference is Obama. Back in the Team of Rivals era, Obama appeared to have surrounded himself with thinkers older and more conventional than himself in order to counterbalance his own penchant for the visionary. But Obama is quite a bit older and grayer himself. He sees less opportunity in the world, and more threat. Asked by The New Republic about his own moral calculus on acting to protect the rebels in Syria, Obama said that the torrent of frightening news he receives every day had made him "more mindful probably than most of us" of America's limitations. Sounds positively Hagelian.

The Team of Buddies, in short, are unlikely to seriously disagree with each other, or with President Obama. That should make for a smoothly carpentered, George Bush-the-elder foreign policy over the next fours years. Not bold, not brave; but well managed.

At this moment in history, Obama may need a goad more than a brake -- a reminder that despite the palpable weariness of the American people, much of the world still looks to this country for acts of leadership. 


Terms of Engagement

Nation-Building in the Classroom

Has President Obama given up too soon on hopes for fixing Afghanistan?

I have spent the last two weeks teaching a class -- along with Bruce Jones, director of the Center on International Cooperation -- on the increasingly unfashionable topic of nation-building. Bruce and I did what we could to convey the difficulty, not to say the implausibility, of this endeavor by asking the students, from New York University's Abu Dhabi campus, to focus on ether Afghanistan or Haiti -- pathological patients which have resisted virtually every form of treatment available to the nation-building professional. But we never fully dented the kids' optimism, as they marshaled an impressive series of arguments for more international engagement, be it a second, third, or fourth try.

Experience has certainly dented Barack Obama's optimism: A president who came to office arguing that failing states constituted a threat to U.S. national security now asserts that the time has come to do nation-building at home rather than abroad. Indeed, the biggest problem with nation-building is that the practice keeps making the theory look bad. Experts like James Dobbins at Rand emphasize that nation-building can work when outside forces put sufficient money and troops into the effort. But then the world pours money into places like Haiti or Afghanistan, or the Congo, and it disappears into quicksand, or people's pockets. These efforts seem to vindicate critics like William Easterly who insist that development assistance doesn't work, or scholars like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, who argue in Why Nations Fail that dysfunctional political institutions cause states to fail, and outsiders can do very little to help.

But the record is not quite so dreadful as we think, at least if we take in the long view. The last Australian peacekeeping troops recently left Timor Leste -- still a desperately poor and miserable place more than 12 years after foreign troops waded ashore -- but it's now standing on its own shaky legs. Both Liberia and Sierra Leone were killing fields not long ago, and now, after major international interventions, they are democratic and ever so slightly hopeful. Nation-building cannot spark prosperity, or infuse legitimacy into a corrupt political order; but it can build the capacity of feeble states, and give them the breathing room to establish their own bona fides.

And this brings me to Afghanistan. As I wrote recently, the stated willingness of White House officials to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and to do so rapidly, implies that the administration has already achieved its goal of degrading al Qaeda -- Obama said as much while standing with Afghan president Hamid Karzai earlier this month -- and is now prepared to let Afghanistan sink or swim on its own. Yet Obama has also committed the United States to spending about $6 billion a year in Afghanistan for training and aid even after the troops go home in 2014. I wonder, given all the talk about nation-building at home, how the president will justify the need for all that money sent overseas.

It's important to understand that what Obama has been doing in Afghanistan is not exactly nation-building; it's "stabilization." The counterinsurgency strategy he authorized in late 2009 envisioned an influx of civilian officials and funds into the most contested parts of the country in order to improve local governance and increase prosperity -- so as to win the loyalty of the Afghan people and marginalize the Taliban. This was nation-building-in-a-box; and it failed. One study after another has found that the civilian effort has not produced a change in the mindset of ordinary Afghans, save perhaps to make them more hostile to the foreign presence or the Afghan government. What's more, aid that could have been spent effectively in more peaceful areas has been lavished on the most dangerous provinces, Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgun, where gains are most at risk of evaporating when international troops leave.

Aid-as-stabilization was bound to fail, since the kind of behavioral changes aid seeks to promote happen far too slowly to suit U.S. military objectives. And yet aid-as-nation-building has not altogether failed. In 2002, 900,000 children, all boys, were enrolled in school in Afghanistan; now the figure is 8 million, 40 percent of them girls. Access to basic health services has gone from 9 percent of the population to 60 percent. Life expectancy is reported to have increased 15 years over the last decade (though public health scholars have disputed the reliability of the figures.) Of course, the cataract of money that the United States has poured into Afghanistan over the last decade was bound to do some good, but we should bear in mind that only $16 billion of the over $500 billion which we've spent there has been channeled through the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Afghanistan doesn't discredit the case for aid; it discredits the case for conscripting aid into short-term military goals. The COIN imperative has not only directed money away from the regions where it could have the best effect, it has also dictated that much of it is devoted to ambitious development or public-works projects carried out by American non-profits and private companies outside the control of the Afghan government. Such "off-budget" spending is immensely wasteful; a recent World Bank report concluded that only 10-20 percent of such funds actually reach Afghanistan, as opposed to 70-80 percent of money given to the Afghan government. And of course it does nothing to strengthen the government, allegedly the ultimate goal of the program.

This is not as illogical as it sounds. Because, as Acemoglu and Robinson convincingly argue, poor institutions play a central role in state failure, host governments are often too weak, or too corrupt, to entrust with large-scale projects. And Afghanistan is Exhibit A for weak-state syndrome. Nevertheless, my students, bless their idealistic hearts, organized their presentation on Afghanistan around the theme of empowering Afghans in their own development -- for example, by increasing Afghan entrepreneurs' access to financing and Western expertise. Self-sufficiency is, after all, the best exit strategy; it just requires a great deal of patience, the one commodity the Pentagon isn't blessed with.

Now the military is leaving. With the COIN phase coming to an end, the United States can afford to focus on the slow work of enhancing local capacity which is the sine qua non of nation-building. Alex Thier, the USAID official responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that the administration is well aware of the need to encourage Afghan self-sufficiency, and has been channeling increasing sums through the more capable ministries, like the Ministry of Public Health. Thier also says that USAID has begun to spend far more of its funds outside the conflict zones.

Thier argues that the advances in Afghan well-being enabled by U.S. and international aid have already helped stabilize the country. We'll see what happens when U.S. forces withdraw from Helmand and Kandahar; news accounts have emphasized the enduring popular, and ubiquity, of the Taliban in the disputed south. The irony is that the new strategy of directly funding the Afghan government may do more to stabilize the country than have the off-budget projects dictated by the COIN strategy. The $16 billion which the United States and other donors have pledged to give Afghanistan over the next four years represents a big drop in total aid; but because donors promised that half the funds would be sent through Kabul, the government should be more able to pay for its commitments than it has in the past. And 80 percent of the funds will be aligned with Kabul's own priorities. That is an important vote of confidence -- deserved or not -- for a government desperately seeking legitimacy with its own people.

With the threat of terrorism receding along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan but growing in North Africa and elsewhere, I'm not sure that Obama can come up with a compelling national-security rationale for the long-term commitment to Afghanistan he's undertaken. In any case, his heart is plainly no longer in it. But I would offer something simpler: We got Afghanistan into this mess, and we should do what we can to help get it out.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images