Guest Post: Essence of Decision (Part I of III)
Rei Tang, a Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) alum, brings his historical and organizational expertise to bear in analyzing foreign policy decisionmaking and the Obama administration. Part one of three. As always, guest posters express only their own opinions.
“Maximize the President’s optionality.” Spoken in bureaucratese, this is what Thomas Donilon wanted to do as he took over the role of President Barack Obama’s national security adviser. Like most bland things in national security, this phrase is loaded. Graham Allison compares Donilon to Robert F. Kennedy who protected President John F. Kennedy’s options during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It speaks to how the president sees his relationship to the executive branch, his inclinations and limits. It speaks to how the president chooses and trusts his advisers and officers.
For a confident new president who respected national security pragmatists like Jim Jones, Joe Biden, Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Dennis Blair, making national security policy should have been straightforward. Obama and, former NATO supreme allied commander and marine commandant, General Jones created an open and orderly national security policy process—layers of interagency committees teeing up options to the National Security Council. Every department and agency would have a chance to say something. This would lead to good policy. But it ran into problems. In the NSC staff, now the “national security staff,” those who had been through the campaign with Obama had their access to the president downgraded. In the Afghanistan surge decision, the Department of the Defense and the military had boxed in the president. The more open the process, the more policy became stuck in the bureaucracy. In crisis decision-making, which takes up an extraordinary amount of bandwidth and which is politically delicate, bureaucracy can’t be allowed.
The president came to find out this is not what he wanted. As the president gained experience, what he did want shows in the people who survived and thrived in the administration. They understand politics. Donilon, Panetta, Biden, and McDonough have worked on campaigns and understand the imperative of mitigating Obama’s political problems on national security. They’ve not only put in place the national security policy structure, but they control it—the information, the direction. They’ve expanded the president’s space to make careful, deliberate decisions. And to have “no leaks.”
In Graham Allison’s account in Time of the president’s decision-making in the Osama Bin Laden raid, several deeds stand out.
• When the president was informed that the CIA might have found Bin Laden’s compound, Panetta brought him information outside of the normal channel of the daily threat matrix briefing, outside of the usual NSC process.
• While the CIA worked to confirm Bin Laden’s locations through a number of secret collection methods, from August to December, “Obama, Donilon, Brennan, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, the Vice President’s National Security Adviser Tony Blinken and Biden, supported by Panetta and [Deputy DCIA Michael] Morell” were the only people who knew what was going on.
• Realizing they needed the military, Panetta, bypassing the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff (the National Command Authority), reached out to the Vicechair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright, who brought Joint Special Operations Command’s Admiral William McRaven and a B-2 bomber commander into the circle.
• It wasn’t until the final six weeks before the raid that the “war cabinet” of the NSC began to deliberate, and, practically, by that time the question before them was not about which options to choose, but whether to go ahead.
Characteristically, Panetta said of his perspective on the decision, “Take the view of the man in the street… If ordinary Americans knew what we knew, they would think it was a no-brainer to go.” Donilon put together the call list for the NSC to notify other officials and foreign governments of what had been done. Special operations forces were rewarded with becoming a part of the inner circle.
Allison has an interesting way of describing the months from receiving information about bin Laden’s location to the raid: “Hunters know that the toughest choice they face is when to fire. If they shoot too soon, they will miss the mark, allowing the kill to escape. But by waiting, they risk a sound that will be made that will spook the target. And yet Obama waited five months after first hearing about bin Laden’s whereabouts and acting.”
Another story is David Sanger’s account of the president’s shift in the Afghanistan war. There is no need to go through the entire history save for the latest episode. In the most recent process, uncomfortable with the surge, by early 2011 Obama “told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exit from Afghanistan. This time there would be no announced national security meetings, no debates with the generals. Even Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were left out until the final six weeks.”
And controversially, this approach is taking place with high-value targeting. As Kimberly Dozier writes, “White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets… The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.”
The article details further separation of CIA and DoD/Joint Special Operations Command targeting procedures, more discretion for the White House, and the streamlining of past targeting review processes.
At what point does the White House go too far? If history is any guide, it’s the norm for White Houses to exert more control over the national security bureaucracy through ways that upend authorities of stalwart institutions like the military and State Department. Seemingly young, unknown, inexperienced, and political staffers at the White House elbow out cabinet secretaries and generals. The claim of executive privilege that bars Congressional oversight over the White House makes it somewhat of a black box.