Former Obama Defense Official Rosa Brooks: President Obama Is In Need Of An Intervention
Rosa Brooks, who served under President Obama as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and then Special Coordinator for Rule of Law and Humanitarian Policy, offered her former boss some long-overdue advice in her new Foreign Policy Magazine piece:
“[P]ush the foreign policy ‘reset’ button.”
In it, she recalls Obama’s principled vision for U.S. foreign policy during his 2008 campaign, which won over the American people and the world alike. It offered a fresh new worldview and policy platform that departed dramatically from his predecessor’s. She then contrasts that vision with where his foreign policy stands today — in shambles.
She highlights key regions that could be fairly portrayed as policy failures, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China, Latin America, and Africa. On Obama’s expanding drone campaign, she describes “a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings — we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.”
She lays these policy failures at Obama’s door, describing him as having been a “visionary candidate,” yet a President who “has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture — one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks.”
The United States, she says, “needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.” The President “needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.”
Brooks pulls no punches in her “intervention” attempt. She provides him with a 6-point plan of action to turn things around, should the American people grant him a second term.
A central theme that spans across many of these recommendations is a dysfunctional foreign policy team in which well-respected strategists and visionaries have been mostly replaced by inexperienced political hacks.
She describes an environment where:
- “The Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop.”
- The “National Security Staff (NSS) lacks the personnel or the depth of experience and expertise to be the primary font of policy.”
- “Nepotism trumps merit.”
- Cronyism “reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings,” thereby shutting out dissenting voices, “along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights.” This “guarantees uninformed group-think.”
- Two of Obama’s three gatekeepers, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and his Deputy Denis McDonough, are allegedly “jerks” and despise one another. “The nastiness demoralizes everyone and sends the message that rudeness and infighting are acceptable.”
She describes the President as someone who, like his predecessor, has withdrawn into a bubble. He is heavily shielded by gate-keepers, rarely attends press conferences or interacts with members of Congress, never calls anyone.
She encourages him to implore staffers to play devil’s advocate — to challenge the polices that Obama and his close circle plan to pursue, if only to highlight their weaknesses, and to make those who have his ear actually have to defend them. In short, Obama needs more dissenting opinions in the room.
Perhaps her harshest critique of the President is one which many of his earliest supporters have long complained about: Obama lacks a backbone.
President Obama has sound moral instincts, but he often backs away from them at the first sign of resistance. He came into office with a mandate and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. Had he been willing to use some political capital — and twist a few arms on the Hill — in those early months, Guantanamo would be closed, and the United States might have a more coherent approach to national security budgeting. But on these and other issues, the president backed off at the first sign of congressional resistance, apparently deciding (presumably on the advice of the campaign aides who already populated his national security staff) that these issues were political losers.
Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy; the issues became losers because the White House abandoned them. Ultimately, Congress began to view him as weak: a man who wouldn’t push them very hard. As a result, Congress pushed back hard on everything, including health care, economic stimulus, and regulation of the financial industry, and Obama was forced to live with watered-down legislation across the board.
If he gets a second term, Obama needs to start thinking about his legacy, and that will require him to fight for his principles, not abandon them. Even if he fights, he won’t win every battle — but if he doesn’t fight, he won’t win any.