Washington was again caught by surprise last week in the wake of reports that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ex-CIA Director David Petraeus had advised President Barack Obama last July to reverse policy and arm vetted Syrian rebels. The latest shoe dropped when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told a visibly stunned Senator John McCain in an open Senate hearing that they too had supported the Clinton-Petraeus recommendation, which was ultimately rejected by the president.
That sharply differing views are tabled and debated in government should shock no one. That the president may reject the advice of key cabinet members and the intelligence community, even if it represents the consensus of the most important players on his national security team, should come as no surprise. The president is, after all, “the decider.”
Who spoke with the press about the Clinton-Petraeus matter has not been revealed. When the story broke General Petraeus was already long gone from government and Clinton was in the final hours of her tenure. Arguably this was a relatively benign situation.
Yet there is still a “not quite right” quality to the revelation. Perhaps an aide was trying to make a superior look good in the wake of the president’s New Republic interview, in which he questioned the ability of the United States of America to make a difference in the struggle for Syria by citing military intervention as the only alternative to the current policy. Perhaps it was an attempt by someone to re-litigate in public a decision made in secrecy. Whatever the motive, a more effective vehicle for dissent would have involved either or both principals speaking out on the record as private citizens. It is not too late for them to do so. Indeed, they could contribute constructively to the growing debate.
One can imagine Panetta was taken by surprise when McCain asked him in a public hearing whether or not he had agreed with the recommendation that the president ultimately rejected. The default response to such a question is something on the order of “Senator, I am in no position to discuss the internal deliberations of the executive branch or the nature of the advice I give in total confidence to the president.” Panetta responded differently, and the Department of Defense subsequently issued a clarifying statement, saying that ultimately he had accepted the decision of the president to limit US involvement to non-lethal assistance to the unarmed Syrian opposition. As for Dempsey, his position was untenable once the secretary of defense responded to McCain in the way he did. He had no practical choice other than to echo Panetta.
Whether the president is right or wrong on any given issue, if he is acting within his constitutional powers he is entitled to expect that his senior subordinates will hold in confidence the advice they render and, so long as they are serving officials, support in full the decisions he makes. Naturally, it does not always work this way in the world of hardball Washington politics. No doubt there were and are senior people still serving in government who believe that the president is wrong on Syria. How can they most effectively make their views known and perhaps influence the changes they view as vitally important?
Propriety aside, the question of how best to reargue and reverse “bad decisions” is a practical one. Will the president and his closest advisors be persuaded by public revelations of dissent to amend decisions reached in private? Probably not. Is there a workable alternative within the system for airing and reconsidering decisions deemed wrong? Here, perhaps, the White House might do well to look in the mirror.
Although the presidency is not a military position, there is something to be said for a time-honored military practice in which a combat commander renders, for the benefit and guidance of his or her officers, his or her estimate of the situation to be addressed and the course of action he or she believes necessary to accomplish the mission. In truth this is not unlike what a private sector CEO would do with his or her key executives in advance of a product launch or a merger. One may wonder, given the reaction of government officials to the New Republic interview and the Clinton-Petraeus story, if the president fully shared his reasoning with his key foreign policy principals and if they, in turn, shared it with their subordinates so that ultimately the officials charged with implementing US Syria policy in Washington and in the field would know what they were trying to accomplish and why.
Beyond making sure that the president’s decision and its rationale were clearly understood by all, the president’s national security team would have to insure that the president have at his disposal facts and views that might cause him to modify, perhaps significantly, his estimate and his preferred course of action. This is easier said than done. No one likes to tell the boss that key aspects of an earlier decision may need to be reconsidered in the light of new information or a compelling argument. Still, the president, like a military commander, should be given the opportunity to amend a course of action that might otherwise produce disappointment or even disaster. The tone set at the top will determine whether key people think they have a shot at being heard within the system and whether they feel empowered to offer alternative views. Some presidential decisions are, by virtue of urgency, irreversible once made. Yet, a national security interagency system should be flexible enough to accommodate reconsideration of decisions not requiring immediate execution.
The Clinton-Petraeus-Panetta-Dempsey story is probably mortifying for all concerned, including the president. Ideally this tempest-in-a-teapot would somehow facilitate reconsideration of the current approach to Syrian policy rather than entomb it in concrete. Historians will, in time, examine why President Obama, knowing that the prospects for a peaceful, managed Syrian political transition were receding to the vanishing point, chose not to enter the arena where the struggle for Syria was actually being waged. In the fullness of time scribes may conclude that by the time the United States tried to influence the course of the armed struggle (if indeed a policy adjustment was ever made) it was too late. They may well write about the bloody minded determination of Moscow, Tehran and Hezbollah to win in Syria. But no one can really know what scholars will be writing years from now. Without a crystal ball the United States must do its best, with the imperfect tools at its disposal, to mitigate the damage done by a ruling family willing to burn a country and imperil its neighbors, including important American allies and friends. Standing clear of Syria and its associated wreckage will not be possible and should not be seen as a policy option. That which was reportedly decided months ago should be urgently reconsidered. Our supposed lack of influence will surely be confirmed if we opt to believe we have none.