Head in the Sand

How many more tell-all memoirs will it take for the president to admit that it's not working?

Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan wrote the soundtrack to my early childhood. You know the stuff. Seeger, sorrowful and mellifluous: "Where have all the flowers gone?"  Dylan, querulous and un-mellifluous: "How many times must the cannonball fly?"

From this you can probably deduce that I was a child of the American Left, of which little is now left. Even so, from time to time I still find myself humming a few bars of a Seeger or Dylan song under my breath. I don't mean to. I don't even want to. It just happens.

I had several such moments as I read former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's new memoir, Duty. Maybe that's because Gates -- whom no one would describe as a leftie, past or present -- takes a stance on war that's not so far removed from the one taken by my anti-war parents in the early 1970s.  Each time he visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gates recalls, he found himself "enveloped by a sense of misery and danger and loss." American policy, he asserts, has become perilously over-militarized; "the use of force [is] too easy for presidents." But viewed up close -- far from the "antiseptic offices" of the White House or the CIA -- war is never anything but "bloody and horrible," and its costs are measured in "lives ruined and lives lost."

Nodding along as I read, I found myself humming softly to myself. [Cue "Down by the Riverside."] Gates ain't gonna stu-dy … war … no more.

Which is just as well, since President Barack Obama ain't gonna hire Gates no more.  While his book is substantially more nuanced than early press accounts acknowledged, he is largely uncomplimentary toward the Obama White House. Gates was repelled by what he saw as the White House's "aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting" attitude toward the uniformed military. But while much comment on Gates's memoir has understandably focused on his account of the tortured state of civil-military relations, his critique of the president's inner circle in fact goes far deeper.

Gates describes a White House populated by political hacks with little substantive foreign-policy knowledge, little understanding of how the executive branch works, and less humility. He recalls Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, complaining to him and to Hillary Clinton that White House staffers were "advising the president on foreign-policy issues that they knew nothing about." Similarly, Gates recalls his own "chagrin" when Obama dispatched National Security Council (NSC) Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to check up on military efforts to aid earthquake-stricken Haiti. "I considered NSC involvement -- or meddling -- in operational affairs anathema," he observes. "I had nothing personal against McDonough," but "such staffers are almost always out of their depth."

That's the polite critique. Gates is often less polite: Obama's NSC took "micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level," frequently leaving Gates "fed up" -- and occasionally inclined to tell the NSC staff "to go fuck themselves." Told that the NSC insisted it "had the pen" on a report on the status of military efforts in Afghanistan, Gates was "furious": the NSC "might have the pen," he insisted to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, "but it couldn't have its own foreign policy."

Or at least it shouldn't. Though Gates is frequently complimentary toward Obama himself, he clearly faults the president for his failure to rein in his staff. Obama allowed his NSC to become an "operational body with its own policy agenda, as opposed to a coordination mechanism," he charges, and that its agenda was shaped mainly by short-term political considerations.

At this point in my perusal of Gates's memoir, I found myself humming a different Pete Seeger song: "When will they ever learn ... when will they ever learn."

After all, Gates is only the most recent and the most senior in a long line of critics with a similar analysis of the Obama White House. I've even made this critique myself. (I too probably ain't gonna get a job in the administration no more, though I continue to study war.)

Consider Vali Nasr, a former State Department official and respected Middle East expert -- now dean at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies -- who describes his time in the Obama Administration as "a deeply disillusioning experience." He describes Obama as a "dithering" president with "a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics." There's also, of course, former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, who is described in Bob Woodward's book Obama's War as convinced that senior White House political advisors were "major obstacles to developing and deciding on a coherent policy." They "did not understand war or foreign relations," but instead focused on "the short-term political impact" of the president's decisions.

Such critiques aren't just coming from those in national security fields. Commenting on the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov, a New York Times analysis concludes this failure "reveals an insular White House that did not initially appreciate the magnitude of its self-inflicted wounds, and sought help from trusted insiders as it scrambled to protect Mr. Obama's image." Also in the New York Times, Paul Krugman shares his "sense that economic policy discussion in the WH has grown dangerously insular."

Over and over, it's the same story: Read Edward Luce's 2010 analysis in the Financial Times: "[F]ew can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle." Or read James Mann's The Obamians, recounting the frustration of cabinet officials marginalized by Obama's "small inner circle" of former campaign aides. Or dip into Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, describing "the dysfunctions of an often leaderless White House," or Glenn Thrush's recent Politico Magazine article, "Locked in the Cabinet," which notes that "the staffers who rule Obama's West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance." Or consider the conclusions drawn in a December National Journal article by veteran political reporter Ron Fournier: "President Obama needs to fire himself. Not literally, of course, but practically: He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.… For all his strengths, Obama is a private, almost cloistered, politician surrounded by fawning aides who … often put political tactics ahead of governing, protecting the president's image with narrow-minded zeal."

Here's the thing. No one likes "fawning aides" who "put political tactics ahead of governing" -- but if the whole enterprise were a rousing success, we'd hail the fawning aides as world-class geniuses. Imagine if Iraq had become a peaceful -- or, at least, functional -- state, if Afghanistan was stable and safe, if Pakistan was a reliable partner, if Syria's bloody war had ended, if we weren't still trapped in a cycle of perpetual covert war against a poorly defined enemy, if the Russian "reset" had led to increased democracy and amity, if the domestic economy was thriving, if the Healthcare.gov rollout had produced nothing but happy customers, if Obama's approval ratings were still at their 2009 high. Imagine! [Cue John Lennon.]

If Obama's inner circle had led the president from triumph to triumph, who wouldn't forgive a little micromanagement and "operational meddling"? Who wouldn't forgive a little arrogance and insularity from the inner circle?

But that's not where we are. On the contrary, the president's inner circle has presided over policy failure after policy failure. (No, I'm not going to list all those failures -- I've written about many of them before, and anyway it's just too depressing. And yes, I know, there have been some real successes -- but they're mostly small, while the failures are mostly large. And yes, there are also some terrific people on the White House team, who have tried hard to offset the trends described by Gates and so many others. You know who you are, and bless you, and none of this is your fault.)

For a White House that appears to spend too much time thinking about politics rather than policy, here's the biggest failure of all: when it comes to public opinion, Obama's presidency has gone down like a lead balloon. According to Gallup, Obama started out with an impressive 69 percent job approval rating in January 2009. Now he's down to 41 percent job approval, lower than every past president's approval ratings at this point in a second term with the sole exception of Richard Nixon (who was mired in the Watergate scandal at this stage of his presidency).

If the political hacks can't even get the politics right, why on earth does the president keep them around? When will he ever learn?

So here's what I'm wondering: How many more memoirs like Bob Gates's will it take before the president accepts that his critics might just be on to something? How many times does Obama have to hear the same criticisms -- criticisms that come from his friends and supporters as often as they come from his political opponents -- before he recognizes that his presidency's in serious trouble, and eases out the staffers who've been serving him so poorly? 

How many… [Cue Bob Dylan.]

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.... The answer is blowing in the wind.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


Bob Gates Doesn't Know Much About History

The former secretary of defense thinks this is the first time politics played a role in foreign policy? Please.

Readers of Foreign Policy might be dimly aware that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates published a memoir this week. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War offers lots of grimy details about Gates's time serving both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations (there's also some good stuff in there about a few foreign leaders). In both the excerpts and Gates's publicity interviews this past week, he has expressed his central thesis loud and clear: The crafting of American foreign policy has changed, and not for the better. When Gates first came to Washington, politics was kept segmented from policy. During his term as secretary of defense, however, Gates found himself increasingly disgusted with Joe Biden the ways that partisan politics and blinkered strategic thinking affected policymaking.

As many observers have pointed out, it's a bit rich for Gates to decry the role that politics plays in policymaking in a tell-all memoir published before his last boss has left office. It seems likely that the principal debate inside the Beltway will be about the ethics of Gates writing his tell-all so soon after leaving office. This would be a shame, however, because it would elide the bigger flaw in Gates's worldview: his appalling understanding of the history of American foreign policy. If Gates thinks that the insertion of politics into foreign policy is a recent phenomenon, he needs to do his homework. It used to be worse -- a hell of a lot worse.

The kerfuffle over Gates's memoir started as I was knee-deep into Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, an absorbing chronicle of the fierce debates between isolationists and internationalists between the start of World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. Through the fog of history, that period is now seen as a hotly contested battle between the forces of reason, who correctly perceived the rising threat of fascism, and the forces of ignorance, who saw no reason to get involved in overseas wars.

As Olson illuminates, the truth is far seamier. To be sure, the isolationist camp was perfectly willing to play a nasty, brutish sort of politics. Isolationist members of Congress spearheaded hearings about whether Hollywood was inserting subtly pro-British messages into popular films. Prominent members of the America First group played on anti-British and anti-Semitic sentiment in the heartland to pressure Washington into staying out of Europe. At the same time, high-ranking anti-British members of the U.S. military actively leaked to isolationist columnists and congressmen in an attempt to thwart Lend-Lease and other forms of military aid to Britain. Indeed, in early December 1941, the Chicago Tribune and Washington Times-Herald published a bombshell story, detailing top-secret strategic military plans should the United States enter World War II. The story roiled D.C. for several days until the Dec. 7 Pearl Harbor attack mooted the debate. Montana Sen. Burton Wheeler, a prominent isolationist, later acknowledged that he was the source of the leak, but Olson argues that Army Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold most likely gave the plans to Wheeler. Why? Arnold was upset that the proposed strategy minimized the role of his beloved air force.

The internationalist camp, however, played politics even more fiercely. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his surrogates repeatedly accused isolationists of being part of a "fifth column" of Nazi sympathizers sent from Germany to weaken the United States. Roosevelt went beyond such rhetoric to combat his political adversaries. He formed an alliance with FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who had already engaged in the widespread surveillance of nativist groups. By 1939, the Justice Department knew that the FBI had "identifying data" on more than 10 million people. This included wiretaps that persisted despite a congressional ban on the practice and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld the ban. The FBI developed detailed dossiers on prominent isolationist opponents of FDR, including Wheeler and the aviator and social activist Charles Lindbergh. After a May 1940 foreign-policy address to Congress that generated critical telegrams, FDR ordered Hoover to look into the backgrounds of every individual who sent one.

Ironically, Roosevelt was obsessed about fifth columns at the same time that Prime Minister Winston Churchill established a British Security Coordination (BSC) group in the United States. The BSC -- with the blessing of FDR and Hoover -- was created to strengthen the internationalist camp and weaken the isolationists. According to Olson, "[BSC] planted propaganda in American newspapers, spied on isolationist groups, dug up political dirt on isolationists in Congress, and forged documents that, when brought to public attention, helped foment anti-Nazi sentiment."

The most political actor during this entire period was, of course, Roosevelt. Burned by his disastrous court-packing efforts and haunted by President Woodrow Wilson's fall from grace after World War I, Roosevelt followed rather than led the American public on arming for war. Increasingly, the public generally supported Roosevelt's internationalist bent -- indeed, his 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, won the nomination largely because his internationalism resonated far better than traditional Republican isolationism. Despite public support, however, FDR moved slowly to aid Britain and bolster America's armed forces. Roosevelt's tendency of announcing such policies without implementing them drove Churchill crazy -- not to mention his own defense establishment.

Despite a far nastier strain of politics 70 years ago, both FDR and the United States eventually adopted the correct policies. Similarly, Gates acknowledges in his memoirs that despite the role that politics played, Obama likewise made the right foreign-policy calls. What seems to offend the former secretary of defense is the idea that politics played any role in foreign-policy decision-making.

Which, if you think about it, is insane. Foreign policy and national security are inherently political bailiwicks. It is increasingly difficult for presidents to launch major foreign-policy initiatives without a modicum of popular and congressional support. To accuse the Obama administration of factoring in the political is to accuse it of not committing political malpractice. In retrospect, had Bush and his advisor Karl Rove factored politics into their National Security Strategy, maybe it would not have been so unsustainable.

I have no doubt that Gates thinks of himself as having been beyond the political fray, crafting policy decisions like a Platonic guardian surrounded by a sea of political pack rats. As an ex-cabinet member who has left the political stage, he's entitled to that opinion. But he's not allowed to pretend that it's worse now than it used to be.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images