By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – During President Barack Obama’s first term, there was hidden friction between powerful Cabinet secretaries and a White House that wanted control over the foreign-policy process. Now Obama has assembled a new team that, for better or worse, seems more likely to follow the White House lead.
The first term featured the famous “team of rivals,” people with heavyweight egos and ambitions who could buck the White House and get away with it. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates were strong secretaries of state and defense, respectively, because of this independent power. Leon Panetta had similar stature as CIA director, as did David Petraeus, who became CIA director when Panetta moved to the Pentagon.
The new team has prominent players, too, but they’re likely to be more deferential to the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry has the heft of a former presidential candidate, but he has been a loyal and discreet emissary for Obama, and is likely to remain so. Chuck Hagel, who will probably be confirmed this week as secretary of defense, is a feisty combat veteran with a sometimes sharp temper, but he has been damaged by the confirmation process and will need White House cover.
John Brennan, the nominee for CIA director, made a reputation throughout his career as a loyal deputy. It’s a Washington truism that every White House likes Cabinet consensus and hates dissent. But that’s especially so with Obama’s team, which has centralized national security policy to an unusual extent. This starts with national security adviser Tom Donilon, who runs what his fans and critics agree is a “tight process” at the National Security Council.
This centralizing ethos will be bolstered by White House team headed by Denis McDonough, the new chief of staff, who’s close to Obama in age and temperament. Tony Blinken, who was Vice President Biden’s top aide, has replaced McDonough as NSC deputy director, and State Department wunderkind Jacob Sullivan, who was Clinton’s most influential adviser, is expected to replace Blinken. That’s lot of intellectual firepower for enforcing a top-down consensus.
In Obama’s nomination of people who are skeptical about military power, you can sense a sharp turn away from his December 2009 decision for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
Obama’s choice for CIA director also is telling. The White House warily managed Petraeus. In choosing Brennan, the president opted for a member of his inner circle, with whom he did some of the hardest work of his presidency.
Brennan was not a popular choice at the CIA, where some view him as having been too supportive of the Saudi government when he was station chief in Riyadh in the 1990s; these critics argue that Brennan resisted unilateral CIA operations in the kingdom back then to monitor the rising threat of Osama bin Laden.
Obama has some big problems coming at him in foreign policy, starting with Syria and Iran.
Presidents always say they want that kind of open debate, and Obama handles it better than most. But by assembling a team where all the top players are going in the same direction, he is perilously close to groupthink.
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com.