Obama’s guys

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID IG­NATIUS da­vidig­natius@wash­post.com

Dur­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s first term, there was hid­den fric­tion be­tween pow­er­ful Cab­i­net sec­re­taries and a White House that wanted con­trol over the for­eign-pol­icy process. Now Obama has as­sem­bled a new team that, for bet­ter or worse, seems more likely to fol­low the White House lead.

The first term fea­tured the fa­mous “team of ri­vals,” peo­ple with heavy­weight egos and am­bi­tions who could buck the White House and get away with it. Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bob Gates were strong sec­re­taries of state and de­fense, re­spec­tively, be­cause of this in­de­pen­dent power. Leon Panetta had sim­i­lar stature as CIA di­rec­tor, as did David Pe­traeus, who be­came CIA di­rec­tor when Panetta moved to the Pen­tagon.

The new team has prom­i­nent play­ers, too, but they’re likely to de­fer more to the White House. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry has the heft of a former pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, but he has been a loyal and dis­creet emis­sary for Obama and is likely to re­main so. Chuck Hagel, who will prob­a­bly be con­firmed this week as de­fense sec­re­tary, is a feisty com­bat veteran with a some­times sharp tem­per, but he has been dam­aged by the con­fir­ma­tion process and will need White House cover.

John Bren­nan, the nom­i­nee for CIA di­rec­tor, made a rep­u­ta­tion through­out his ca­reer as a loyal deputy. This was es­pe­cially true th­ese past four years, when he car­ried the dark bur­den of coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­icy for Obama.

It’s a Washington tru­ism that ev­ery White House likes Cab­i­net con­sen­sus and hates dis­sent. But that’s es­pe­cially so with Obama’s team, which has cen­tral­ized na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy to an un­usual ex­tent. This starts with na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Tom Donilon, who runs what his fans and crit­ics agree is a “tight process” at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil (NSC). Donilon was said to have been peeved, for ex­am­ple, when a chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in­sisted on de­liv­er­ing a dis­sent­ing view to the pres­i­dent.

This cen­tral­iz­ing ethos will be bol­stered by a White House team headed by De­nis McDonough, the new chief of staff, who is close to Obama in age and tem­per­a­ment. Tony Blinken, who was Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den’s top aide, has re­placed McDonough as NSC deputy di­rec­tor, and State De­part­ment wun­derkind Ja­cob Sul­li­van, who was Clin­ton’s most in­fluen- tial ad­viser, is ex­pected to re­place Blinken. That’s lot of in­tel­lec­tual fire­power for en­forc­ing a top-down con­sen­sus.

The real driver, ob­vi­ously, will be Obama, and he has as­sem­bled a team with some com­mon un­der­stand­ings. They share his com­mit­ment to end­ing the war in Afghanistan and avoid­ing new for­eign mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tions, as well as his cor­re­spond­ing be­lief in diplo­matic en­gage­ment. None has much ex­pe­ri­ence man­ag­ing large bu­reau­cra­cies. They have in­de­pen­dent views, to be sure, but they owe an abid­ing loy­alty to Obama.

In Obama’s nom­i­na­tion of peo­ple skep­ti­cal about mil­i­tary power, you can sense a sharp turn away from his De­cem­ber 2009 de­ci­sion for a troop surge in Afghanistan. The White House felt jammed by the mil­i­tary’s pres­sure for more troops, backed by Gates and Clin­ton. Watch­ing Obama’s luke­warm sup­port for the war af­ter 2009, one sus­pected he felt pushed into what he even­tu­ally con­cluded was a mis­take. Clearly, he doesn’t in­tend to re­peat that process.

Obama’s choice for CIA di­rec­tor is also telling. The White House war­ily man­aged Pe­traeus, let­ting him run the CIA but keep­ing him away from the me­dia. In choos­ing Bren­nan, the pres­i­dent opted for a mem­ber of his in­ner cir­cle with whom he did some of the hard­est work of his pres­i­dency. Bren­nan was not a pop­u­lar choice at the CIA, where some view him as hav­ing been too sup­port­ive of the Saudi government when he was sta­tion chief in Riyadh in the 1990s; th­ese crit­ics ar­gue that Bren­nan didn’t push the Saudis hard enough for in­tel­li­gence about the ris­ing threat of Osama bin Laden. But agency of­fi­cials know, too, that the CIA pros­pers when its di­rec­tor is close to the pres­i­dent, which will cer­tainly be the case with Bren­nan and Obama.

Obama has some big prob­lems coming at him in for­eign pol­icy, start­ing with Syria and Iran. Both will re­quire a del­i­cate mix of pres­sure and di­plo­macy. To get the bal­ance right, Obama will need a cre­ative pol­icy de­bate where ad­vis­ers “think out­side the box,” to use the man­age­ment cliche.

Pres­i­dents al­ways say that they want that kind of open de­bate, and Obama han­dles it bet­ter than most. But by as­sem­bling a team where all the top play­ers are go­ing in the same di­rec­tion, he is per­ilously close to group­think.

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