The announcement won’t be “official” until Thursday, but the United States of America will soon have a new Secretary of defence, a new CIA Director, a new Ambassador to Afghanistan and a new general in charge of the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre of war.
All of the soon-to-be-officially- announced appointments are first rate. Leon Panetta has been an excellent Director of Central Intelligence, an effective White House Chief of Staff (under President Clinton) and a powerful California Congressman. He brings all that experience with him to the Pentagon job. David Petraeus, once described by Richard Holbrooke as “the smartest general I ever met,” is arguably the best military officer of his generation, He will bring hard-earned counter-terrorism experience to the CIA. Ryan Crocker served admirably as Ambassador to Iraq and will no doubt serve admirably in Afghanistan. And Lt. Gen John Allen has been Gen. Petraeus’s right hand in Afghanistan and will pick up where his old boss left off without missing a step.
As a trade, the country gets a team that is almost as good as the current team and better in certain respects (Crocker being the most certain respect). The question is whether, after two years on the job, President Obama has mastered the system well enough to take full advantage of the strength of his team. David Rothkopf argues that the answer is “not yet.”
(I)t usually takes Presidents who have no national security experience (see George W. Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter) closer to four years to actually master the basic elements of the process. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the Middle East, in terms of the rise of new powers, in terms of addressing America’s dangerous dependencies and weaknesses, Obama still seems to be searching for a clear vision and a voice. He often seems reactive and confused despite a set jaw and strong rhetoric. Mixed messages or messages and actions that don’t jibe are too often the norm thus far for this national security team and in the end, the President must take responsibility for these.
It is to Obama’s credit that he picks generally strong advisors. It is however, inevitable…and indeed, it is desirable…that they have a range of views. He must be the conductor, the leader, the one who brings coherence to the team. That can’t be done in a lawyerly, split the difference kind of way. And yet from his speech ramping up in Afghanistan to that announcing action in Libya, the message was, as I have written before, “hello, I must be going”…escalation and withdrawal, toughness and hesitation blended together. But adopting countervailing views is hardly the same as having a balanced approach. It produces confusion among allies and creates opportunities for enemies.
A more experienced Obama at the centre is the most promising new member of this national security team…but he alone will determine whether he and America benefit from the diverse perspectives available within such a “team of rivals” or whether he and our international policies are undone by them. Announcements about members of the team are well and good, but what we are all waiting for is to see who, at his core, the President of the United States is going to turn out to be.
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