Friday, October 8, 2010

A Dysfunctional Foreign Policy Team: The Obama Administration's New Problem

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By Barry Rubin

In what is probably the most important sign of U.S.-Israel cooperation for this year, the U.S. government has finalized the sale of the advanced F-35 to Israel.

I repeatedly try to explain to people who believe that everything the Obama Administration does is conditioned by some anti-Israel ideology or that everything is bad that this is not so.
Understanding the difference between a rigid, nothing-ever-changes ideology-determined perception and understanding how things do change (even if it is done hypocritically for political gain) is one of the key factors in doing good political analysis.

Moreover, there's no country in the world where the make-up of the high-level bureaucracy is as important as it is in the United States. America has the most decentralized policymaking system of any democratic state. It matters very much who is the secretary of state, defense secretary, national security advisor, and intelligence chief because these are semi-independent entities which have their own institutional points of view. (I discuss this in historical detail in my book, Secrets of State.)

Of course, ultimately all must obey the president and follow his line. But they have a lot of latitude. And when there is a president who is weak or ignorant about international affairs, these people war over his ear, that is try to persuade him as to what he should do with some real effect.

So the resignation of National Security Advisor James Jones is an event of real significance. It's being portrayed as one of those routine end-of-two-years changes but in fact dissatisfaction with Jones has long been clear. Among other things, he has been accused of being rather unenergetic.

Despite his background as a former Marine general with 40 years in uniform, he emerged as one of the more extreme advocates of what might be called the Obama ideology in the foreign policy sector. On the Middle East, Jones was said to be the main supporter for the idea of trying to impose some U.S. devised solution on Israel and the Palestinians. He will not be missed. His replacement is top aide Tom Donilon.

The leftist Huffington Post says that Donilon would be a disaster as national security advisor. Wow, could he really be that good? Seriously, though, it claims Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Jones can’t stand him and that he used to work for FannieMae. Still, this organ--it calls Jones the president's "Iron Hand," which would provoke gales of laughter from anyone in DC who knows anything about what's been going on--is ticked off because it sees Jones as the "left-wing" of Obama advisers.

After all, these are the kind of people who think that making concessions to Syria and engaging that dictatorship doesn't have to be disrupted by "little" things like proof the Syrian military is training Hizballah to fire missiles at Israel.

The Atlantic agrees on how many people dislike Obama (well, they're all using the same gossip sources on this story after all) and adds that the military doesn’t like him either.

Donilon is a Democratic political operative with relatively little government (and even less foreign policy) experience. He is likely, then, to be a yes-man who will do whatever Obama says without having much of an independent view. This, of course, is precisely the trap presidents can fall into, made much worse if they don’t know much about international affairs.

Even worse (for the world if not for Obama) is that he is likely to look for partisan and electoral advantage in decisionmaking, something that is already a bigger problem in this administration then it was in most of its predecessors. This was clear in deciding what to do about Afghanistan and now in Israel-Palestinian issues.

This means two things:

First, Obama is even less likely to get independent advice, leading him into more mistakes.

Second, when top-level officials are debating options, Donilon, unlike Jones, won’t have some independent opinion he is pushing. The likelihood of a U.S. effort to impose a solution on the Israel-Palestinian conflict is thus reduced.

Having a top foreign policy team that is in heated antagonism plus a president who is ignorant on foreign affairs (sorry, but that's very true of Obama) is a formula for disaster.  Add to that the lack of any strong advisor who is a junior partner of the president as happened in the relationship between President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor/Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

That doesn't mean it was a love fest before, where do you think the long delays and uncertainty over Afghanistan came from?

Instead, the secretary of state isn't trusted because she's a former (bitter) political rival, who has her own (more accurate and moderate) views. The secretary of defense is a holdover from the Bush Administration and is not trusted by the White House insiders. And now the national security advisor, while not holding actively silly views, is a yes-man.

Thus, Obama is more likely to come up with his own ideas to an even greater extent. Uh-oh!

Clinton and Gates are relatively good, especially compared to the likely alternatives. Up until now, there has been a debate in which Obama could choose some compromise view between them, on one hand, and Jones plus the more ideological White House staff, on the other. But what if Obama doesnt want to listen to the advice of Clinton and Gates, then operates through Donilon to put through his unadulterated first opinion? Imagine these people meeting to decide how to respond to a nuclear Iran, an aggressive Russia, some big foreign policy crisis.

Consider, for example, what's happening inside the war on...whatever it is. People who want to talk about radical Islamist ideology are treated as if they are extremist crazies and are lucky if they don't get fired. Meanwhile, huge amounts of money are poured into psychological explanations for terrorism or strategies for countering the revolutionaries that ignore all the real causes for their behavior. It would be hard to come up deliberately with a more self-defeating approach.

These are the people who will face the difficult tasks ahead? This does not bode well for the Obama Administration or for lots of others around the world.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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