I am an exceptionally poor crystal ball reader, so I have
been a little taken aback by the amount of comment, both positive and negative,
provoked by my column
on the dysfunctionality of the Obama foreign policy team.
In the column, I quoted Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, who told a reporter: "The truth is, Obama doesn't call anyone, and he's not close to almost anyone. It's stunning that he's in politics, because he really doesn't like people." I should note that she later issued an apology, via Twitter: "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize."
In that spirit, I can't resist offering my own official apology (it's too long to tweet):
I recently wrote a column in which I might have appeared to be highly critical of certain senior White House officials. I might also have implied that the word "jerks" could be applicable. This was a poor choice of words, and I regret it deeply. What I was trying to say is that I admire the National Security Advisor greatly and consider him a fine leader. The same goes for those other jerks, too.
I think I'm getting better at the Washington apologies game. No doubt I will have many further opportunities to practice it in the days to come.
More seriously: there truly are many dedicated and talented people working in the Obama administration, including on the National Security Staff, and nothing I have written is intended to disparage their work or their hard-won achievements, many of which are invisible to the public.
However, I wouldn't have written the piece if I didn't know that my concerns and criticisms are widely shared by many inside the administration. Not universally shared, to be sure, but widely. Thanks to those of you who have offered anecdotes and analysis, or have sent friendly emails and tweets my way. I appreciate it, and hope that those in a position to do so will make their own views public. (I'm happy to put up guest posts on this blog, including anonymous posts if circumstances seem to justify it.) I also hope -- probably vainly -- that some of this discussion reaches the president, and that he takes the critical comments to heart. He can do a lot better than he's doing now.
A few of my friends have chastised me for my timing, arguing
that however on-target my criticisms may be, I am undermining the president's
chances of re-election by voicing these criticisms now. Would that I were
influential enough to sway the election through a single column! But that
fantasy aside, I don't think helping the president get re-elected is a
I was fortunate to hold a job as a political appointee in President Obama's administration from spring 2009 to summer 2011, and more fortunate still to have worked at the Defense Department for Michèle Flournoy, a gifted defense intellectual and a superb leader and manager -- who bears no responsibility for anything foolish I say. (The smart stuff, I learned from her.) Inevitably, working for someone so talented made the relative dysfunction at the White House stand out even more glaringly. But during my time as a political appointee, I did precisely what political appointees are supposed to do: I worked hard to advance the president's agenda, and in public I always tried to stick loyally to the White House talking points, even when I privately disagreed.
But I stopped being a political appointee well over a year ago, and there's got to be some statute of limitations on hewing to the party line. At the moment, I'm a private citizen, an academic, and a writer. As a personal matter, I sincerely hope the president is re-elected: his foreign policy, imperfect though it is, remains a great deal saner than Mitt Romney's proposed policies, and I'd vote for Obama anyway on domestic policy grounds. But I think that parroting White House talking points is his campaign's job, not mine.
That said, it is certainly fair to complain that my column made only a glancing reference to the Obama administration's foreign policy successes, which are no less real than the failures. In an effort to keep the column from getting too long, I cut several paragraphs I had initially written on the administration's foreign policy wins. I should have left them in, since I see that the result looks more lopsided than intended. For that, I truly do apologize.
Next week, I plan to write something on Mitt Romney's foreign policy proposals, and the initiatives likely to spring from the fevered minds of the advisers who surround him. In that context, I'll try to also highlight the many things that are good about Obama's foreign policy.
Meanwhile, I will hunker down quietly and await divine vengeance. Please send suggestions, compliments and vilifications to me here.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/GettyImages
Jim Hanson, a former Special Forces Weapons NCO who writes for the military blog Blackfive, worries that the civilian-military gap enables the politicization of national security: although this "problem is larger and predates the current administration...it is hard to hear the stories from uniformed folks currently serving about how the political officials weigh in regularly on how national security decisions could affect Obama's polling."
I've seen some of this myself, and it's not pretty. It's certainly not unique to this administration, though: War has always been politicized. Intuitively, it makes sense to think that civilians with less understanding of the military might be particularly prone to politicize decisions about national security, but I don't know if there's any empirical evidence to support this. If you know of any, please share.
Meanwhile, several people wrote to suggest expanded
civilian-military exchanges and educational opportunities. Capt. Kyle Borne,
who's currently serving in Afghanistan, wonders "if having a 'U.S. Military'
class in our nation's high schools might alleviate the growing
gulf between civilian and military." He worries, though, that some might perceive such a course as "the military...trying to brainwash their children."
I wonder if any schools (other than military schools) offer courses or units on the military, and if any teaching modules on the military are available for use by high school teachers. Seems to me that a well-done, balanced course on the history, present, and future of the U.S. military could be a fascinating window through which to look at any number of issues, from the changing nature of security threats to the role of the military as an agent of social change in America (think desegregation).
Matthew Colford, a student at Stanford, suggested that civilian universities might "consider creating week-long exchange programs with the military academies (provided the latter are willing). These programs would expose students at both institutions to 'the other side.' Were a civilian student to live as a cadet for a week his or her perspective would almost certainly change, for better or worse, just as it would for a cadet who attends a civilian institution for a week."
It would be tough to implement something like this on a large scale, given the small number of service academies compared to the very large number of civilian universities, but the idea of a pilot exchange program with selected universities might be feasible -- as would the creation of "mini" ROTC programs for civilian undergraduates interested in learning more about the military without necessarily having to make a multi-year service commitment.
Eric Anton writes, "I'm a company grade officer and have had the misfortune to spend a year in a deployed HQ." He suggests bridging the civilian-military gap by creating short "Military 101" courses for civilians who will be working with military personnel, and increasing the use of dedicated Liaison officers and Points of Contact for inter-agency planning and coordination.
Rebecca Ben-Amou, a student at Dickinson College, urges an increase in mid-career exchanges between military and civilian organizations. "It should be a requirement for Foreign Service Officers and members of other executive branch agencies to engage in [such a] 'personnel swap' before qualifying for higher-level positions."
My own top three ideas: 1) Develop a two- or three-day "Military 101" course tailored for senior civilian officials with national security or foreign policy jobs, and make it mandatory. People will whine about taking it. (Everyone thinks civilization will come to a crashing halt if they're out of the office for three days. It won't.) But a basic understanding of military structure, planning, etc. would dramatically improve the quality and efficiency of decision-making.
2) Increase opportunities for career military personnel to spend a year here and there in civilian institutions, and reward them for doing so. This idea has been championed by David Petraeus and many others, and the military has begun to respond -- but more should be done.
3) Increase opportunities for interested civilians at every level to spend a period of time working within the military. The week-long Joint Civilian Orientation Course sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense is the right idea, but it's too short and too small. Why not invest in civil-military relations by creating month-long (or even year-long) programs that would enable civilians to work within military organizations? Make the program competitive and prestigious-sounding, and focus on attracting "influencers" and thought leaders from a range of communities. Start small -- maybe a hundred people in year one -- and assess and expand as the program goes forward, with a view to expanding it over time.
Those three ideas all strike me as feasible and relatively easy: that is, with a little will, significant improvements could be made within a couple of years. Longer term, I'd love to see this country get serious about national service...but that's another story.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Rosa Brooks, who writes FP's "By Other Means" column, blogs about war, politics, and the evolving role of the military.