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The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.

REVIEW: The Last of the President’s Men

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward

Last of the President’s Men is a short but revealing work by Bob Woodward, the prolific author on American presidents who returns full circle to the subject that made Woodward a celebrity journalist, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Specifically, Last of the President’s Men is about the relationship between Richard Nixon and Alexander Butterfield, the man who revealed to the world Nixon’s secret White House taping system which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation under the sure threat of impeachment. Butterfield, who unsuccessfully attempted a book of his own, is virtually Woodward’s co-author here and it is Butterfield’s voluminous personal papers, carted out from his White House office against the rules and hidden away for decades, that serve as the evidentiary basis of this book.

Aside from the precise description of how the taping system came to be installed in the Oval Office, a task Nixon’s feared chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, delegated to Butterfield, the focus is on Butterfield’s role as a top aide to both Nixon and Haldeman, a post to which Butterfield ascended only with considerable difficulty after first navigating Richard Nixon’s neurotic quirks, becoming in essence, “Haldeman’s Haldeman”.  Butterfield does not come across as an entirely admirable character. Like Mark Felt who in turning informer during Watergate had acted out of frustrated ambition, Alexander Butterfield’s betrayal of Richard Nixon had less to do with safeguarding the Constitution from an out of control president than the reaction of an unappreciated servant who had noted every slight and had nursed his grievances.

What shines through in the story is how truly weird and brittle Nixon had become in dealing with other human beings by the time he had reached the presidency. It is very difficult to reconcile the Richard Nixon of The Last of the President’s Men who had paralyzing anxiety attacks over working with – or even meeting- new staff with the Nixon who wrangled with lawyers, FBI agents and fellow Congressmen in investigating Alger Hiss, who forcefully debated Nikita Khrushchev or who remained steady when his limousine was attacked by a Communist mob in Venezuela. Perhaps Nixon grew worse with age or perhaps as president, Nixon finally had the means to keep unwanted people – and that would be nearly everyone – at bay. The portrait painted by Woodward of Richard Nixon is of a desperately lonely, misanthropic figure, inept at and pained by normal social relations to such an extent that he kept even his wife and children at a strange remove.

NIXON

Yet Nixon had his gifts and even Woodward allows this, particularly his “strategic mind” which Woodward credits for Nixon managing to retain to this day, admirers. Nixon, for all his social awkwardness (which in sections is  downright painful to read and I speak as someone deeply versed in things Nixon) had a penetrating intelligence that let him understand the board and the players, the moves they might make and their strengths and weaknesses of which Nixon might take advantage. Had Richard Nixon not outsmarted himself with the taping system that Butterfield meticulously oversaw, he most likely would have prevailed in Watergate over his enemies and left office after two full terms. Nixon was far smarter than his critics gave him credit at the time and far more ruthlessly manipulative than his defenders are willing to concede to this day.

The Last of the President’s Men is fast read but an interesting one. Recommended.

Book Bonanza

Monday, December 28th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

My usual yuletide haul of books received and purchased….

     

     

     

     

The Last of the President’s Men by Bob Woodward
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum
Avoiding Armageddon: From the Great War to the Fall of France 1918-1940 by Jeremy Black
Roots of Strategy Book 3
Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner
Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes
Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
The Middle-East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis
Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith by D.K.R. Crosswell
The Libertarian Mind by David Boaz
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein
A Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin 

If anyone has read these titles and wishes to fire away about them, or their authors in the comment section, feel free. Not sure how many will be featured in future reviews.

The Nixon books were first brought to my attention on, if I recall, the Facebook page of historian Maarja Krusten of NixonNARA, the expert’s expert in matters relating to the presidential records, documents, court cases and tapes of Richard Nixon. When Maarja opines on Nixon topics, I listen with care. I look forward to reading these, even though my opinion of  Bob Woodward is that he often has to be treated cautiously, Alexander Butterfield’s cooperation and contribution was obviously central to the book (not unlike the far longer cooperation between George Kennan and his biographer,  historian John Lewis Gaddis). Evan Thomas’ theme just offhand strongly reminds me of Richard Reeves’ excellent President Nixon: Alone in the White House; I’m curious if this will be a rehashing or if Thomas can bring something new to the table about America’s 37th President.

I am also excited about Rule of the Clan, which should be of interest to anyone thinking about insurgency, irregular warfare, unconventional warfare and terrorism intersecting with tribal or quasi-tribal societies. My friends Michael Lotus and James Bennett who wrote the excellent America 3.0 and drew on the family structure ideas of British anthropologist Alan Macfarlane and French scholar Emanuel Todd, would also be interested.

The fiction was picked up for a simpler reason. I need a change of pace and never read the last, most recent book in the Game of Thrones series.

What are you reading these days?

A Century of Nixon and the Nixonian Century

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the United States of America and the only man to resign that office would was born one hundred years ago.  His life spanned from the Great War, included service in the Second World War and saw the end of the Cold War – an American victory to which Nixon substantially contributed with the deft statesmanship that was his greatest strength. Nixon stood for national office five times and was on the winning ticket in four of them, a political record matched in American history only by Franklin Roosevelt, a record that includes re-election by the second greatest landslide in history. A triumph that was undone by the paranoia, insecurity and bitterness that ate away at him and led Nixon to betray his oath to uphold the Constitution and forced him out of the Oval Office in disgrace.

So numerous and far-reaching were Nixon’s actions that we can justly say, for good and ill, that a century of Richard Nixon may have helped usher in a Nixonian century.

Richard Nixon named four justices to the Supreme Court, shifting the judicial branch in a more conservative direction, built upon by later Republican presidents; he created the EPA and the first affirmative action program, cut the dollar from it’s last tie to the gold standard,  declared war on drugs, ended the draft and began the All-Volunteer Force and began the movement to decentralize power from Washington bureaucracies to the states.

Some of these policies were ultimately disasters and some were a great success, but domestic policy (in contrast to politics) was never more than an irritating chore to Richard Nixon, one he frequently delegated to Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Nixon’s true, all-consuming passion – from his first days as a freshman member of Congress to his grim final moments “alone in the White House” to a winter street in Moscow as an elder statesman – was foreign affairs. It was on the world stage that Nixon yearned to not just be “in the arena” but win the game.

Sometimes he did.

Richard Nixon, an inveterate poker player, came into office in 1969 with a bad hand and too few chips on the table. The Nixon administration were the victors in a three-way presidential race inherited a losing war in Vietnam begun by the Democratic “Best and the Brightest” that had savagely divided the American people like no other conflict since the Civil War. Richard Nixon in partnership with Henry Kissinger managed to accomplish, by design and improvisation, a restructuring of American relations and the world order. They blunted a potential nuclear war between Communist China and the USSR, opened up detente with the Soviet Union, negotiated the first SALT and ABM treaty with the Soviets, unilaterally initiated the international monetary regime of floating currencies. In the Mideast, Nixon saw critical American support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War  as an opportunity to move toward a future general Arab-Israeli peace negotiation, that later came to pass in the Camp David Accords during the Carter administration.:

TO:        Secretary Kissinger

FROM:  The President

  1. I have just written a note to Brezhnev emphasizing to him that you speak with my full authority and the commitments you may make in the course of your discussions with him have my complete support.  I also told him that you would be conveying to him my strong commitment to devote my personal efforts toward bringing a lasting peace to the area.
  2. I believe that, beyond a doubt, we are now facing the best opportunity we have had in 15 years to build a lasting peace in the Middle East.  I am convinced that history will hold us responsible if we let this opportunity slip by.
  3. The current Israeli successes at Suez must not deflect us from going all out to achieve a just settlement now.  There is no reason to believe that Israel will not win this war now, as it has won all the previous ones, but you and I know that, in the long run the Israelis will not be able to stand the continuing attrition which, in the absence of a settlement, they will be destined to suffer.
  4. It is therefore even in Israel’s best interests for us to use whatever pressures may be required in order to gain acceptance of a settlement which is reasonable and which we can ask the Soviets to press on the Arabs. [….]

And torturous secret negotiations with Hanoi in Paris led to the painful but necessary American withdrawal from the Vietnam while Nixon’s greatest and most far-reaching triumph was opening relations with Communist China:

While some would argue that China’s opening to the world was inevitable, an isolated China at Mao’s death might have seen power pass into the hands of the Gang of Four, with terrible consequences for the Chinese people. It remains Richard Nixon who changed the strategic geopolitical balance at a time of acute weakness for the United States and set forces in motion that have transformed China and have only yet begun to shake the world.

Nixon’s most important achievements in foreign affairs came at the price of managing his administration first through secrecy, then guile then machiavellian intrigue against even his closest associates and finally with a resentful, angry, ill-will that seemed to consume Nixon and turn every “win” sour:

….At eleven o’clock in the morning, Nixon met with his staff in the Roosevelt Room. To many in the room he seemed oddly cool and quietly angry as he thanked them all for their loyalty and said something few of them understood. He said that he had been reading Robert Blake’sDisraeli and was struck by his description a century ago of William Gladstone’s ministers as “exhausted volcanoes” – and then mumbled something about embers that once shot sparks into the sky.

“I believe men exhaust themselves in government without realizing it” the president said “You are my first team, but today we start fresh for the next four years. We need new blood, fresh ideas. Change is important…..Bob, you take over.”

Nixon left then, turning the meeting over to Haldeman. The men and women of the White House stood to applaud his exit, then sat down. The chief explained what Nixon’s words meant: a reorganization of the administration. He told them that they were expected to deliver letters of resignation before the end of the day, then passed out photocopied forms requiring them to list all official documents in their possession. “These must be in by November 10,” he said. “This should accompany your pro forma letter of resignation to be effective at the pleasure of the President”. They were stunned. Speechless. Were they being fired? Haldeman said they would know within a month whether or not they could remain. At noon, the same drama was played out with the entire Cabinet, with Haldeman again passing out the forms. 

The man who had campaigned in 1968 as the smiling “New Nixon” did not want a chief of staff anymore. Nixon craved a “Lord High Executioner” who would keep underlings at bay and reporters and Congressmen away.

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s tirelessly faithful right hand man, obliged, even as he struggled in a losing battle to keep Nixon’s dark side and worst impulses under wraps, tabling orders he deemed vindictive, politically unwise or crazy from being carried out until Nixon had calmed down and had time to reflect. Most of the time Nixon sheepishly thanked Haldeman, but Nixon found other willing hands in Colson, Liddy, Hunt and others. It is probable that Nixon himself approved of the Watergate break-in, but even if he had not done so specifically in that instance, he consented to abuses of power and an illegal apparatus with which to carry them out. The most malign proposal toward American democracy during the Nixon administration, known as “The Huston Plan“, was rejected even by J. Edgar Hoover, was later partially revived during the writing of The Patriot Act. An authoritarian trend that will haunt us for a long time to come.

If Richard Nixon is the father of the multipolar world and contributed greatly to the defeat of Communist totalitarianism, he also laid the foundations of the Creepy-state here at home through Watergate, which damaged the faith of Americans in their government and tarnished democracy. This is as much a part of Nixon’s legacy as Detente or China. Nixon had badly needed the free and absolute pardon that he received from Gerald Ford.

Richard Nixon managed a final comeback as an elder statesman, dispensing often wise geopolitical advice at private dinners where, in his early eighties, Nixon held forth at length, speaking without notes, on the dynamics of how the world really worked, at least through the prism of brutal realpolitik which he saw it. He lived to see the husband of the woman who once sought his prosecution, solicit his counsel in the Oval Office. His funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners and four former presidents of the United States. To the very end, Richard Nixon never gave up. We can’t take that away from him.

Let history judge.

A Tale of Two Victories and Two Falls

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

My co-blogger Charles Cameron is fond of his “DoubleQuotes” postings that feature frequently uncomfortable juxtapositions designed to prod thinking. Here’s a wordier one from me:

….Planning for a second term has been under way for months, with Lew and Pete Rouse, the counselor to the president and Obama’s internal management guru, preparing lists of possible promotions and nominations. The staff process has been gossiped about by the staff, but details have been kept secret, even from insiders.

“They haven’t even made calls. People haven’t been asked,” said a Democrat familiar with the situation. “They’re more targets than they are potential nominees.”

Now, officials will start to cement their departure dates, and aides will sound out colleagues about possible new roles. Among the top current officials expected to go: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Attorney General Eric Holder and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood might not be far behind — or may even beat them out the door.

There’s also a growing list of people the administration is looking to find spots for: Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick most of all, as well as former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and outgoing North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad.

Obama has overseen one of the most stable cabinets in history — the only departures have been Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and Gary Locke and John Bryson from Commerce. But what’s about to happen amounts to an almost full-scale second transition: 

 

….At eleven o’clock in the morning, Nixon met with his staff in the Roosevelt Room. To many in the room he seemed oddly cool and quietly angry as he thanked them all for their loyalty and said something few of them understood. He said that he had been reading Robert Blake’s Disraeli and was struck by his description a century ago of William Gladstone’s ministers as “exhausted volcanoes” – and then mumbled something about embers that once shot sparks into the sky.

“I believe men exhaust themselves in government without realizing it” the president said “You are my first team, but today we start fresh for the next four years. We need new blood, fresh ideas. Change is important…..Bob, you take over.”

Nixon left then, turning the meeting over to Haldeman. The men and women of the White House stood to applaud his exit, then sat down. The chief explained what Nixon’s words meant: a reorganization of the administration. He told them that they were expected to deliver letters of resignation before the end of the day, then passed out photocopied forms requiring them to list all official documents in their possession. “These must be in by November 10,” he said. “This should accompany your pro forma letter of resignation to be effective at the pleasure of the President”. They were stunned. Speechless. Were they being fired? Haldeman said they would know within a month whether or not they could remain. At noon, the same drama was played out with the entire Cabinet, with Haldeman again passing out the forms.

Ironically, one of the many Cabinet secretaries Nixon ignominiously fired in his bid to centralize power in his White House staff was his former 1968 primary rival, HUD Secretary George Romney, father of 2012 Republican nominee, Governor Mitt Romney.  A blow from which George Romney’s political career never recovered. Nixon’s relationship with Romney had been an acrimonious one, formally polite on the surface with public shows of confidence by Nixon and machiavellian intrigues behind the scenes to undermine Romney and reverse the policies he had been advancing in Nixon’s name.

This latest Cabinet reshuffle to build a “Team without Rivals”, comes in the context of an explosive story, the abrupt resignation Friday of CIA Director General David Petraeus, citing an extramarital affair and accepting responsibility for “extremely poor judgment” and “unacceptable conduct”. The affair, allegedly conducted with his official biographer, came to light during a still not fully explained FBI investigation into unauthorized accessing of Petraeus’ private email account. The resignation of the highly regarded General Petraeus comes just before he was expected to testify before Congress regarding discrepancies and questions in the administrations handling of the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and other Americans. It also coincides with the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declining to testify.

It is difficult to say if General Petraeus public career will survive this scandal that he has brought upon himself, an action which stands in jarring contrast to his sterling, some might say superhuman, record of service to America, or if he will, like George Romney, fade away. Certainly, the CIA badly needed to stop the revolving door on the Director’s office and have a strong, visionary, hands-on leader who could reform and invigorate the Agency not merely in terms of covert action but in terms of rebuilding of capacity in deep cover clandestinity and the acquisition of strategic intel. I do not often find myself in agreement with Senator Feinstein but she is correct, this resignation hurts because it is also a significant institutional opportunity cost for the IC. I too wish it had not been accepted  – at one time it wouldn’t have been – but that is the President’s prerogative.

What however are the real issues? What should we be looking for?

Two things: As with Richard Nixon’s second term machinations, with such sweeping changes personnel changes in the offing for the Obama administration, ask yourself as events unfold: “Where is power flowing? And Why?”

If you do you will be in a better position to game out the direction of the next four years, especially in foreign policy and national security.

The White House has attempted to sell a story that the FBI doing a low-level harassment investigation  stumbled upon a security breach and – on their own authority, mind you – tapped the email account of the Director of the CIA and kept him under surveillance and investigated his mistress and, oh, yeah, the President was only informed of this business after the election on Thursday. Wait! And the DNI ( a three star general whose career was primarily intel administration) on his own initiative called the CIA Director ( a four star general and former theater and combatant commander) in on the carpet and fired him told him to resign. Right.

No, what most likely happened was that the minute the special agents realized who was involved in their investigation and the magnitude of the implications, they stopped and informed their superiors and the matter went up the chain to the FBI Director’s desk. The FBI Director, a former prosecutor with a political antennae circumspect enough to be appointed by George W. Bush and have his term be extended by Barack Obama, would have duly informed the Attorney-General of the United States before proceeding further and – I expect – the National Security Adviser, White House Chief of Staff and the DNI. Worst case scenario thinking in terms of national security would have been one driver. Another would be the fear of an all too juicy story leaking and the media catching an unbriefed POTUS unaware on the campaign trail with a blockbuster scandal before the election. How would that have gone over?

I would further expect that we will in the next few days and weeks hear the most salacious contents of the emails between Petraeus and his biographer, leaked by anonymous officials, timed to coincide with difficult days of testimony regarding Benghazi or new appointments to the administration that could, on a slow media day, prove controversial.

Instead of being distracted by prurient nonsense unrelated to the stewardship of the Republic, time would be better spent scrutinizing the host of nominations to come, not as individuals but as “teams” for particular areas of national security and foreign affairs cutting across bureaucracies – ex. arms control, Russian relations, Mideast etc. What commonalities or congruencies emerge?

I suggest this because back when the Obama administration decided on their “pivot” to Asia, the people they selected for second to third tier workday management related to the Asia-Pacific region were all accomplished, decent, honorable public servants, but their greatest common characteristic was a lack of any professional expertise with China. We saw the same personnel gambit with the Bush administration in the run-up to the war with Iraq where the greatest disqualifier for a job with the CPA was familiarity with the Arab world, Islam or Iraq. When you want careful stratagems, you solicit the advice of experts; when you want grand and revolutionary gestures, the wheels of policy are better greased with bold ignorance. There’s a reason Nixon appointed William Rogers Secretary of State – he knew the State Department bureaucracy would largely oppose his foreign policy initiatives and he wanted someone ill-suited and uninformed in charge there who he could more easily manipulate and keep in the dark.

The sixties radicals used to assert “the personal is the political”; in the eighties, Ronald Reagan in staffing his first administration understood that “the personnel are the political” and picked people culled from Heritage and Cato. My intuition is that in the second decade of the 21st century, the inside circle of the Obama administration have discovered that ” the political are the patterns”.

The story unfolding is no longer the “smoking gun” or the compromising jigsaw piece but the entirety of the puzzle.


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