David Rothkopf offers a A withering critique of Obama's National Security CouncilArchives
tags: Obama, David Rothkopf, National Security Council
If George W. Bush's foreign policy was a testament to the perils of overreaction, Barack Obama's foreign policy is becoming, to many experts, a testament to the dangers of underreaction. On the matter of Syria, in particular, fear of renewed U.S. involvement in the problems of dysfunctional Arab countries (a legitimate fear, of course) kept the Obama administration from trying to shape the Syrian opposition, and therefore the outcome of that country's ruinous civil war. The Syrian war is not Obama's fault (people in Washington have a tendency to think that Washington matters more than it does, and they also have a tendency to avoid holding Arab countries accountable for their own disasters), and he has had his victories in Syria—most notably, the removal of most of Bashar al-Assad's chemical-weapons stockpile. But Syria is a catastrophe, and our Syria policy is a hash, and the U.S. is not winning its struggle against ISIS, and is no longer much interested in removing Assad from power.
Our own policy dysfunctions matter a great deal in all of this, David Rothkopf argues in his latest book, National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear. Rothkopf, the preeminent historian and analyst of the crucially important and usually misunderstood National Security Council (NSC), argues that, “It is not strategy to simply undo the mistakes of the recent past.” (This is a corollary to an observation Hillary Clinton made not long ago about Obama administration foreign policy.)
Rothkopf was an acidic critic of the Obama administration's policy-formulation process long before such criticism became the thing that one does in Washington. Writing in the Financial Times, Edward Luce says that Rothkopf's new work "could lay claim to being the definitive book on how 9/11 affected US foreign policy."
I interviewed Rothkopf recently about his beliefs and findings. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: You're an expert on the organization and purpose of the NSC. Why are most national security advisors—Brent Scowcroft being one obvious exception—perceived to be failures? Susan Rice is in the barrel right now, but she's not the first.
David Rothkopf: I'm not sure I agree with that characterization. While the job is tough and a clear lightning rod for criticism given its importance, proximity to the president, and the number of hot-button issues its occupants must tackle, it really can't be said that most of its occupants can be perceived as failures. Rice's immediate predecessor, Tom Donilon, was certainly not perceived that way—getting a mixed grade, perhaps, but hardly a failing one. His predecessor, Jim Jones, was not seen as a success, but that was largely because he was undercut by a coterie of staffers close to the president and, indirectly, by a president who didn't fully empower him or back him up. Steve Hadley was quite successful, actually, as Bush's national security advisor, helping with the benefit of a largely new team elsewhere in the administration to enable Bush to change course in his last couple of years and finish much stronger than he had started.
Condi Rice oversaw a deeply troubled period in U.S. foreign policy in Bush's first term, but that was largely attributed to the president enabling others in the administration, notably the vice president and the secretary of defense, to gain too much traction and to backdoor the interagency process. Sandy Berger was quite a successful national security advisor in the Clinton second term. Tony Lake, not as successful—he was, like Rice and Jones, an example of a "learning curve" national security advisor, overseeing the process while his boss was getting his sea legs—but he was not seen as a failure. His greatest challenge, in some respects, was that his predecessor, Scowcroft, was seen as the gold standard in the job. You can go back further through history and pick out others who were seen as capable, like Colin Powell or Frank Carlucci, and some who were seen as particularly strong, like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger. So it is a mixed bag.
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