Mounting Crises Raise Questions on Obama Team’s Ability to Cope
By MARK LANDLEROctober 29, 2014
WASHINGTON — One day this month, as the nation shuddered with fears of an Ebolaoutbreak and as American warplanes pounded Sunni militants in Syria, President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, invited a group of foreign policy experts to the White House Situation Room to hear their assessment of how the administration was performing.
She was peppered with critiques of the president’s Syria and China policies, as well as the White House’s repeated delays in releasing a national security strategy, a congressionally mandated document that sets out foreign policy goals. On that last point, Ms. Rice had a sardonic reply.
“If we had put it out in February or April or July,” she said, according to two people who were in the room, “it would have been overtaken by events two weeks later, in any one of those months.”
At a time when the Obama administration is lurching from crisis to crisis — a new Cold War in Europe, a brutal Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and a deadly epidemic in West Africa, to name just the most obvious ones — it is not surprising that long-term strategy would take a back seat. But it raises inevitable questions about the ability of the president and his hard-pressed national security team to manage and somehow get ahead of the daily onslaught of events.
Early stumbles in the government’s handling of the Ebola crisis as well as its belated response to the Islamic State have fueled speculation that Mr. Obama may shake up his team, which is stocked with battle-tested but exhausted White House loyalists and cabinet members, like Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who are viewed as less cohesive than the “team of rivals” in Mr. Obama’s first cabinet. George W. Bush took that route after the bruising midterm elections in 2006, when he dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
“There is an inflection point in every presidency, and this certainly is a logical one, if the president feels he might be better served by some replacements on his team,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While Mr. Blumenthal said the administration had borne up well under the circumstances, the scale and complexity of the problems “would exact a toll personally and professionally on any group.”
There is little evidence that the president plans a wholesale shake-up. But he has already brought in new blood: Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., to manage the response to Ebola, and Gen. John R. Allen, a former commander in Afghanistan, to marshal the coalition against the Islamic State.
Mr. Obama is also leaning more than ever on his small circle of White House aides, who forged their relationships with him during his 2008 campaign and loom even larger in an administration without weighty voices like those of Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary, or Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state.
Over the Columbus Day weekend, the White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough, traveled to the San Francisco home of Senator Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to negotiate personally over redactions in a Senate report on the C.I.A.’s detention and interrogation policies after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
That Mr. McDonough would get involved in such an arcane matter puzzles some legislative aides on Capitol Hill, given the other demands on his time. But it testifies to how the president tends to hand delicate assignments to his most trusted advisers. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Hagel, meanwhile, are struggling to carve out a place in the administration and to penetrate the tightly knit circle around the president.
Mr. Kerry is vocal and forceful in internal debates, officials said, but he frequently gets out of sync with the White House in his public statements. White House officials joke that he is like the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock in the movie “Gravity,” somersaulting through space, untethered to the White House.
Aides to Mr. Kerry reject that portrait, saying he dials into White House meetings from the road and is heavily involved in the policy process. A long memo he wrote on the Islamic State, they said, has become the administration’s playbook for combating the group.
Mr. Hagel has a different problem. A respected former senator, like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel says little in policy meetings and has largely ceded the stage to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who officials said has won the confidence of Mr. Obama with his recommendations of military action against the Islamic State.
Defenders of Mr. Hagel attribute his reticence in meetings to fears that the details will leak into the news media, and say he is more vocal in one-on-one sessions with the president. They also insist that he is more assertive on policy than his reputation suggests, citing a sharply critical two-page memo that he sent to Ms. Rice last week, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling in the near term because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad.
Mr. Hagel wrote that France, Turkey and other allies were reluctant to commit to military action in Syria. And he said that the United States would face a decision about how to respond if Mr. Assad’s troops attack rebels trained and equipped by the coalition.
In separate interviews, Mr. McDonough and Ms. Rice said the president was satisfied with his cabinet. “Deciding policy is just one step,” Mr. McDonough said. “You need the secretaries to implement.”
To do that, however, Mr. Obama has decided that he also needs reinforcements like Mr. Klain and General Allen. Mr. Klain, aides said, is viewed as a potential replacement for John Podesta, the president’s counselor, or even Mr. McDonough, if he chooses to leave.
But these outsiders, sometimes called czars, can cause their own problems. General Allen’s appointment as special envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition antagonized General Dempsey, several officials said, because he worried that the retired general would stray onto the Pentagon’s turf.
“The title ‘czar’ carries with it the sense of all-knowing and all-powerful,” said Leon Fuerth, who was national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore and has written about management in the White House.
Nobody on Mr. Obama’s staff has genuine czar status, though Mr. McDonough comes closest. He has been equally immersed in domestic policy and in politics, but his background is in national security, and he has played a far more active role in that area than previous chiefs of staff have. Before taking on the C.I.A. report, for example, he flew to Berlin to heal a rift with Germany over the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping on the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr. McDonough’s broad portfolio, several officials said, has posed a challenge to Ms. Rice, a blunt-spoken former United Nations ambassador who also has close ties to the president. She coordinated the debate over how to handle the C.I.A. report and the repercussions from the N.S.A.’s surveillance practices, though she may have aggravated those tensions in a heated exchange with her German counterpart.
“I guess I could be a testosterone-driven, territorial kind of personality in this role,” she said. “My view on this is that it’s an asset to have a partner down the hall.”
Mr. McDonough said that he viewed his role as supporting Ms. Rice, and that he did not insert himself into her staff’s core business of developing policies, beyond having a seat at the table like other members of the president’s cabinet. He described Ms. Rice as a friend and said, “The president has exactly the national security adviser he wants.”
Some liberals have been deeply disappointed with Mr. Obama’s slowness in embracing the Senate report, and have questioned Mr. McDonough’s involvement in redacting it, noting his close ties to the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, with whom he served as a deputy national security adviser during the president’s first term. Mr. McDonough said he traveled to Mrs. Feinstein’s home because he views the role of Congress in foreign policy as sacrosanct.
“This is an important case study of the role of Congress in foreign policy,” he said, “and I want to get it right.”
Whatever their jurisdictional issues, officials said Mr. McDonough and Ms. Rice were generally aligned on policy. Both were skeptical about being drawn into the civil war in Syria and about providing weapons to Ukrainian forces to push back Russia-supported rebels. Their caution, one official said, tends to reinforce Mr. Obama’s own instincts.
That may have been a factor in the slow American response to the threat of the Islamic State. Mr. McDonough said he wished the administration had acted sooner, given the battle for Falluja early this year, and acknowledged that the administration misjudged the robustness of the Iraqi Army.
The steady expansion of the National Security Council, and its growing role in operations, poses another problem, said David Rothkopf, an official in the administration of President Bill Clinton who has written a history of the council. Mr. Rothkopf attributed the recent ill will between the administration and the Israeli government — typified by an American official’s anonymous disparagement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in part to the security council’s increased involvement in diplomacy, and not just policy making.
“All N.S.C.’s are tempted to meddle in operational issues, but it not only undercuts the deployed officials, it keeps the White House from focusing where it should: on bigger, strategic issues,” said Dennis C. Blair, who served as the director of national intelligence until 2010, when he was forced out after feuding with other intelligence officials.
Mr. Obama is also dealing with a curse of second-term presidents: an exodus of talented staff members. William J. Burns, a deputy secretary of state who had frequently briefed Mr. Obama on nuclear talks with Iran, retired last week. Antony J. Blinken, Ms. Rice’s principal deputy and an influential voice on Ukraine, is in line for Mr. Burns’s post, but the White House is uncertain about how to replace him.
Ultimately, of course, the administration’s crisis management reflects the president. Mr. Obama, several officials said, came back from a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard frustrated that the White House seemed reactive to events, and instructed his staff to shift its response into a higher gear. Yet he remains deliberative, methodical and not swayed by outside criticism of his style. His blowup during a meeting on the response to Ebola two weeks ago was the exception rather than the rule, they said.
“We’re managing a multiring event, and I think reasonably well,” said Ms. Rice, who had just listened in on Mr. Obama’s call to Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada after the terrorist attack in Ottawa. “We’ve got a lot of balls in the air, and frankly, they’re still in the air.”