Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
It’s true that this isn’t the first time we’re hearing of the toxic atmosphere and mismanagement at Rice’s National Security Council. But it’s striking how clearly the battle lines appear to be drawn in the steady stream of bitter leaks aimed at Hagel, designed to kick him while he’s down. The cruelty with which the Obama insiders are behaving right now is unsettling, to be sure. But more relevant to the formation of national-security policy is the question of whether Susan Rice’s incompetence and pride are playing a role in the constant stream of Obama foreign-policy failures.
About two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine CEO David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, previewed his new book on American foreign policy in the age of Obama by sitting for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Rothkopf has written a book on the history of the NSC, so Goldberg asked him about the NSC under Susan Rice. His opinion was pretty brutal.
Goldberg and Rothkopf discussed the mixed record of national security advisors over the last few decades, and Rothkopf summed it up this way: “If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.”
That sounded like he was letting Rice off the hook a bit, but he returned to the topic to dispel any such impression. In fact, Obama and Rice seemed to reinforce each other’s weaknesses:
If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.
And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.
And indeed, while Hagel was no superstar, Rice crops up in each account of his ouster. Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Rice—a criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.
And according to the New York Times: “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. Senior officials complained that Mr. Hagel had never made such a case in internal debates, suggesting that he was trying to position himself for history on a crucial issue as he was talking to Mr. Obama about leaving his job.”
It’s debatable what the worst part of that is. That the White House was bothered enough by one critical memo for it to appear in a story on the secretary of defense’s dismissal? That the secretary of defense and the national security advisor are communicating this through memos? That White House officials thought Hagel put his thoughts in writing out of borderline-disloyalty and the hope of abandoning a sinking ship?
I was among those singing Rice’s praises as a whipsmart advisor and a tough-as-nails negotiator, at least in the context of her candidacy to be secretary of state. Yet it’s become clear she feeds on conflict. It’s possible that instinct would be more beneficial were she at State and dealing with those shoving John Kerry around on the world stage. But Chuck Hagel is not Sergei Lavrov, and Rice’s conflation of all adversaries, personal and political, is tearing the White House’s national-security team apart.