The selection of John O. Brennan as the White House’s top counter-terrorism adviser may set off a new round of carping–from just about everyone. It was the Left that rose up in fury when Brennan was suggested for the CIA. His proximity to, if not agreement with, the Bush counter-terrorism efforts made him a target of the Left, which let it be known he was unacceptable for the top spot at Langley. Is it any less objectionable when he is the White House counter-terrorism guru?
All the President-elect has done is to avoid a public confirmation fight –but he has let the Left know he doesn’t think much of the notion that anyone with experience during the Bush years is tainted. Which brings us back once again to Leon Panetta at CIA. The rationale, we were led to believe, was to find someone who was not — yes, that’s right — “tainted” by the Bush years. So President-elect Obama got his manager extraordinaire/intelligence novice. But now we really don’t care about the phony tainting after all? So why not pick Brennan or someone who knows his way around the intelligence community to head up the most challenging intelligence agency? Curiouser and curiouser.
And then of course there are Brennan’s views on Iran and the Middle East more broadly. The Washington Post reports:
Brennan has expressed some potentially controversial opinions about how U.S. policy there must shift, particularly toward Iran. In an academic article published six months ago, for example, Brennan said President Bush and his aides had inappropriately publicly bashed Iran, and he urged that U.S. rhetoric toward the country be sharply toned down.
He also called for an increased role for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanese politics, an idea he acknowledged would be anathema to Israel.
Israel views Hezbollah, which for a time was listed by Washington as a terrorist group, as its mortal enemy. “Washington will need to convince Israeli officials that they must abandon their aim of eliminating Hezbollah as a political force,” Brennan wrote in the article, published in the July issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
The new administration, he wrote, must also “be willing to exercise strategic patience” with Iran. The goal, he said, would be to strike a more nuanced and less absolutist policy, a direct dialogue to encourage Iran’s moderates to shun the use of terrorist violence, without appearing to tolerate that violence. Similar views about Iran were expressed by Robert M. Gates before Bush selected him as secretary of defense, giving Brennan a key potential ally in the months ahead.
It remains to be seen how that view meshes with the outlook of other Obama advisors (e.g. Hillary Clinton, Dennis Ross), but it is enough to rekindle qualms that President-elect’s views and intentions with regard to terrorism and Israel. Does terrorism stem from a lack of understanding and respect for terrorist groups and their sponsors? Or from a twisted ideology, manipulated by Iran?
Needless to say, a confirmation hearing would have become a feeding frenzy as different concerns from different ends of the political spectrum came to the fore.
But there is something else at play here. I’m reminded of Karl Rove’s wise counsel on the subject back in December:
As he organizes his presidency, Barack Obama continues to receive glowing reviews. Three out of four Americans approve of how he’s handling his transition.
But organizing and operating the White House will be a much bigger challenge than he can possibly yet understand.
Consider national security. Mr. Obama’s team has the advantage of inheriting procedures and structures that stretch back to President Harry Truman’s 1947 reforms, which created the National Security Council. But there’s historically been tension over the roles of the national security adviser and secretary of state. How that tension is resolved depends largely on the able National Security Adviser-designate, James Jones.
Mr. Jones has been Marine Corps commandant and NATO supreme allied commander, posts whose occupants are treated as demigods. How easily will he fit into a staff role? Will Mr. Jones see his responsibility as ensuring the president receives a broad range of options, or will he put a higher priority on advocating his own substantive views? Could Mr. Jones’s personal relationship with so many top brass undermine Secretary Robert Gates’s control of the Pentagon during what could be Mr. Gates’s last year at Defense?
. . .
Mr. Obama is assembling a strong and intelligent team of people with muscular views and large personalities. Will the individual parts cohere into a well-functioning whole? Things that sound good often work less well in reality. Having served in the White House for nearly seven years and carefully studied how the modern presidency functions, it strikes me that some of Mr. Obama’s steps may make smooth operations harder. There are many things more interesting to the press than how the White House is organized, but few things matter as much, as every president will attest.
The most interesting thing about the Brennan selection (other than the degree to which the voices on the Left, who were apoplectic about Brennan just weeks ago, now toe the Obama line) may be how Brennan fits into the mix with Clinton, Ross, Panetta and the rest. Will this be a more cohesive team than the one assembled by George Bush or are we headed for gridlock, with a jumble of conflicting views and strong personalities laying claim to the same turf? Like everything else about the often opaque President-elect, time will tell.