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Obama’s Broken House

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The White House in Washington DC in black and white

November 09, 2013 07:12 EDT
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The White House is insulating Obama; thereby leading to domestic and foreign policy blunders.

Edward Luce at the Financial Times has an interesting article about Obamacare’s rocky rollout that opens a window onto Barack Obama’s foreign policy travails. He quotes one of the president’s supporters who works with large health care companies as saying: “I tried to tell people at all levels there would be huge problems and they either didn’t listen or got irritated. The White House was programmed to screen out bad news.”

Similarly, Norman Ornstein, a Washington pundit who is no friend to the administration’s critics, writes that the Obamacare fiasco exemplifies the White House’s “remarkable lack of concern with managing the government.” He sees this failing as “probably the president’s most significant weakness” and chalks it up to a White House teeming with “veterans of Congress and of politics.”

We have heard these refrains before on the foreign policy front. A wide criticism (see here, here and here) running throughout the administration’s first term was that the White House’s policy-making machinery was overly insular, centralized and politicized. A particular charge is that Obama has surrounded himself with a national security inner team, drawn largely from the young staffers in his 2008 presidential campaign, which is not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.

Indeed, these points were raised at a press conference which Obama held just before his re-inauguration; even administration supporters acknowledge, as David Rothkopf did earlier this year, that the Obama White House:

“…provides an object lesson in how, when too many staffers have excessive influence, political calculations often trump good policy choices. When an inner circle maintains too tight a stranglehold over the president’s time and attention, too few views come into play.”

This theme is amplified by several former Obama officials. Vali Nasr, who worked on Af-Pak issues in the first term, offers a scathing critique of policy-making in his new book, The Dispensable Nation. According to Nasr, a phalanx of gatekeepers — or as he calls them, a “Berlin Wall of staffers” — operates in the White House, shielding “Obama from any option or idea they did not want him to consider.”

“[Furthermore,] the president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans.”

Likewise, Rosa Brooks, who served in the Pentagon’s policy shop in Obama’s first term, has warned that the White House national security apparatus is a “tiny fiefdom” run by a camarilla of “young and untried campaign aides” and “even Cabinet-level officials often struggle to get direct access to the president.” She charged that “dissenting voices are regularly shut out, along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights.”

In Brooks’ view, “shallow discussions and poor decisions” are all but guaranteed by the procedural dysfunctions. She recommends that Obama should:

“…create internal ‘red teams,’ tasked with pointing out the dangers and flaws of the policy approaches recommended by his senior staff — and he should require his staff to listen and respond to critics, instead of just repeating administration talking points.”

Finally, on a note that seems prescient, given what we are learning about Obamacare’s disastrous launch, Brooks warned: “Though senior White House officials are good at making policy announcements, mechanisms to actually implement policies are sadly inadequate.”

Earlier this year, reports emerged that the White House was ousting Gen. James N. Mattis as head of the US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Greater Middle East, in part because he questioned the wisdom of administration policy regarding Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Commenting on the Mattis affair, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed:

“I am at the point where I don’t trust [Obama’s] national security team. They strike me as politicized, defensive and narrow. These are people who will not recognize it when they screw up, and will treat as enemies anyone who tells them they are doing that. And that is how things like Vietnam get repeated. Harsh words, I know. But I am worried.”

Fixing the White House

It is striking that the Obama administration continues to ignore such criticism from former staffers and friendly observers. The New York Times recently reported that the White House carried out a fundamental review of US policy in the Middle East, which in turn laid the basis for Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly in September.

The newspaper quoted Susan E. Rice, the president’s national security advisor, as saying that the review was done “in a very critical and no-holds-barred way.” Disconcertedly, however, it also noted that the exercise was very much an inside job, done by “a tight group that included no one outside of the White House.” One wonders whether Rice noticed the disjunction.

The policymaking flaws now coming to light in the implementation of the president’s signature domestic achievement have long been evident in the foreign policy realm. If he hopes to salvage his remaining years in office, Obama needs to quickly fix his broken White House.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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