Tuesday, January 7, 2014

President Obama takes on the military and intelligence communities

In his speech on counterterrorism strategy last May, President Obama laid out some difficult ground for his administration to cover in the coming months - basically suggesting an end to the indefinite war that started after 9/11. Sometime this month he has also promised to give a speech outlining his administration's plans to reform the activities of NSA. Much of what he has and will propose won't be very popular with those involved in the military and intelligence communities. It has been my assumption for awhile that we terribly underestimate the pushback a Commander-in-Chief gets when he takes on those very powerful forces.

And then along comes Bob Woodward with a review of the book "Duty," by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While I'm sure that Woodward and his neocon buddies will relish Gates' criticism of President Obama, it only serves to reinforce the reality that any president who wants to bring about reforms in this arena is facing a huge uphill battle.

For example, its fascinating to compare two accounts of the process President Obama used to decide whether or not to intervene in Libya. First of all, here is how it was described by Michael Lewis.
In White House jargon this was a meeting of “the principals,” which is to say the big shots...The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room...

The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qad­da­fi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options...The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians...

The president may not have been surprised that the Pentagon hadn’t sought to answer that question. He was nevertheless visibly annoyed. “I don’t know why we are even having this meeting,” he said, or words to that effect. “You’re telling me a no-fly zone doesn’t solve the problem, but the only option you’re giving me is a no-fly zone.” He gave his generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider, then left to attend the next event on his schedule, a ceremonial White House dinner.
And here is how it is described by Gates via Woodward:
It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.” 
So while President Obama was looking for more military options to avoid a humanitarian disaster, Gates was telling his staff to limit the number of options they made available as a way to control the outcome. Is it any wonder that Gates writes about a atmosphere of “aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting questioning of our military leaders.”

Or how about the time back in 2009 when Petreaus leaked to the press his dissatisfaction with the President's decision to announce an exit date for our troops in Afghanisan?
At a March 3, 2010, National Security Council meeting, Gates writes, the president opened with a “blast.” Obama criticized the military for “popping off in the press” and said he would push back hard against any delay in beginning the withdrawal.

According to Gates, Obama concluded, “ ‘If I believe I am being gamed . . .’ and left the sentence hanging there with the clear implication the consequences would be dire.”

Gates continues: “I was pretty upset myself. I thought implicitly accusing” Petraeus, and perhaps Mullen and Gates himself, “of gaming him in front of thirty people in the Situation Room was inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus.
In other words, Gates was not upset that Petraeus was undermining the CIC to the press, but that the CIC called him out on it. Bad move Mr. Secretary.

And so as we watch the very slow progress we're likely to see on reigning in both counterterrorism strategies and surveillance activities, its important to keep this kind of tension in mind. We'd like to think of our President as someone who's positional power puts them above having to deal with these kinds of intransigent cultures and bureaucracies. But that would be naive.


  1. Didn't Patraeus, in the end, validate the President's lack of respect for him? These people clearly don't think they should ever be criticized for anything, ever, but it's okay for them to criticize others with impunity.

  2. Gates himself admits that he was gaming the discussion. And then he gets upset when Obama appears to be accusing some in the military of doing just that.

  3. How dare that uppity man act like the Commander in Chief and the POTUS. Bernstein is so nakedly hostile, racist, and partisan that he stinks on ice, but these "bigshots" in the military and in the media don't recognize the stink as their own.

    The 'chain of command' is such a simple concept that illiterate soldiers who can't count change in the Army get it. To see high-ranking military officials talk like they get to make policy is to see idiots who have been drawing a government paycheck for too long.

    To deal with the intransigence from leaking, and talking trash about President Obama, t not taking rape and sexual harassment seriously enough to demand discipline from their subordinates, Obama may have to fire a lot of Generals, to which I say, "Good riddance."

    1. Wiley -- it's not Bernstein. It's Woodward. They think differently. They write differently. And their politics are different.

    2. Yeah. We were here at about the same time.


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