by Robert E. Hunter
As President Obama assembles his new national security team, all eyes are on the four top jobs. These choices obviously matter, to ensure effective US diplomacy (Secretary of State); relevant but reduced military power (Secretary of Defense); an intelligence function attuned to understanding the world rather than fighting the nation’s wars (CIA Director); and a National Security Advisor who asks searching questions and gets the team to work together.
Yet in fact these top four appointments hardly matter more than what the president and his Cabinet do to marshal a total team, top-to-bottom, that’s able to do the nation’s business abroad. Judging from recent history, this is unlikely to happen.
In reality, most policy is “made,” and certainly both shaped for decision and later carried into action, not at the highest levels, but within the next several layers down. Here, the president and his advisers need to pay as much attention to putting in place people who can do the job “in the ranks” as at the Cabinet level. Yet most sub-cabinet appointments will likely go to individuals who served in the first Obama administration, whether they have done well or poorly — “promotion from within;” who served in the recent presidential campaign (although campaign and governance skills are decidedly different); or who have personal connections with the new Cabinet members, where “comfort level” is often prized over capacity.
Unlike every other Western government, the US professional Foreign Service usually gains admittance to the higher reaches of government only episodically. That means the skills of governing have to be learned on the job by new entrants to State or the civilian side of the Pentagon. It also tends to limit the access of people who have “been there and done that” for years, both abroad and in Washington, in regard to many of the most complex challenges to the US.
The good news is that, by the second term, presidents who are foreign policy tyros when they first enter the Oval Office — and only two recent new presidents, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, have not been tyros because they mastered the national security trade as vice president — have learned a lot about the true requirements of being commander-in-chief.
There is also bad news: since the end of the Cold War, the US has disarmed itself in the capacity to do hard strategic analysis and policy integration even more than it reduced the size of its military. Confrontation with the Soviet Union spawned a major industry in strategic thought, from the 1950s until the Berlin Wall fell, and the afterglow served the nation well for a time afterward — notably in George H.W. Bush’s managing the effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse, fostering Germany’s unification, and promulgating a grand strategy of a “Europe whole and free and at peace.”
Since then, no president has placed priority on hiring and using effectively people genuinely able to “think strategically” and relate the world’s apples to its oranges. In the Holiday from History before 9/11, that did not much matter; now it matters critically. It begins with clear understanding that the US economy is Thing One for national security; and that the imbalance between military and non-military instruments (the dollar ratio is still 17:1) damages the required integration of US efforts abroad, as underscored in both Iraq and Afghanistan. US engagement in North Africa-the Near East-the Persian Gulf-Southwest Asia is still pursued as though these are four only tangentially-related areas, carved up bureaucratically into disparate areas by both State and Defense, rather than as an interconnected region that has to be met and mastered together. Remarkably, none of the last three presidents has engaged a top-flight group of people, from inside and outside government, able to do just that. The recurring inadequacies of US policies are evidence enough.
It is 32 years since Zbigniew Brezezinski left office; 36 for Henry Kissinger — the last two masters of strategic thinking in the US government. Yet while there are available at least several first-rate strategic thinkers and integrators of policy, none serves in the administration.
It will be a year or more before President Obama can be judged a successful foreign policy president; but he can set a course for failure in the next few weeks, unless he chooses his full team wisely and includes at least one person (preferably several) who can provide the strategic insight, analytical skills, and translation into integrated policies he and the nation must have.