The American Interest
The Middle East & Beyond
Published on June 6, 2013
Foreign Policy Musical Chairs

The “big news” in U.S. foreign policy today, of course, is what is being called the personnel shakeup: Tom Donilon out as NSC Advisor, Susan Rice in from her UN post, and Samantha Power from the NSC staff to Turtle Bay. This is the kind of story the mainstream press can’t get enough of, because it aligns with the biographical “who’s up/who’s down” approach they love so well. Why do they love it so well? Because it has gossip appeal, and because it relieves the media types from actually having to understand any of the issues involved. As my old mentor, Owen Harries, used to put it, people love to read about “flaps and chaps”—scandals and personalities, translated out of Anglo-Welsh idiom—and the media caters to that base taste.

So what, if anything, does this musical-chairs episode mean for U.S. foreign policy in the second Obama Administration? The answer is that, absent inside information about the reasons for it—and I lack all such information—no one really knows. I make this point because our chatterati love to speculate about such things on the basis of logic. Who can blame them? I am about to do it, too, just for S’s and G’s. But the truth is that, once you’ve been on the inside and have actually seen how these kinds of decisions form and flow, you realize that logic is not a very reliable guide to knowledge. I have been present at the creation of a few such decisions, and when I read about them in the paper the next day or the next week, I have wondered if perhaps the reporter and I inhabited two different planets.  Historians sometimes make the same assumption: that the most logical reason something happened is ipso facto the actual reason why it happened.  Well, they do the best they can, at least when they have no axes to grind. But that is rare: “History is a discipline of aggregate bias”, wrote Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction (1971), and even though he’s just a novelist, that doesn’t prevent him from being occasionally right.

None of this has stopped speculators from speculating, or stopped journalists from urging speculators to help them to fill airtime and column inches. Most of this stuff—not that I have had the stamina to read it all—is not very interesting. Susan Rice, a confidante of the President and someone said to be fond of elbow-throwing, is widely said to be sure to eclipse John Kerry in the pantheon of Obama Administration advisers. But how hard is that?

Many commentators, too, point to interesting times ahead in the confirmation hearings of Samantha Power (Susan Rice doesn’t need Senate confirmation to be NSC Advisor). So of course one wonders if the President and his political advisers are not savoring the prospect of a bunch of old white male Republicans seeming to want to savage a woman in pubic view. Now, isn’t that optic worth a hundred tilted television ads—and all for free? And since the President has already proclaimed his would-be (and outlandishly small-minded) legacy—Democratic seizure of the House in next year’s midterm elections—how can that be anything but appealing, realizing that certain Republican Senators are sure to “step in it” in their clueless effort to do the “right” thing?

The most fascinating commentary I’ve run across so far is a WSKG-NPR affair in which Judy Woodruff spoke with Anne-Marie Slaughter and Richard Haass. Anne-Marie Slaughter was Policy Planning Director in the first Obama Administration before returning to Princeton, and of course she knows both Rice and Power, since she worked for that “other” woman on the seventh floor of the State Department whom Power once referred to as “a monster.” Haass, whose name was yet again misspelled, has served in several Republican administrations, including as Policy Planning Director in the first George W. Bush Administration, and has been now for several years President of the Council on Foreign Relations.

I won’t belabor the entire interview, since Ms. Woodruff asked no interesting questions, but I will relate the climactic conclusion. Woodruff asked what these personnel changes say about the President, and Haass answered, very reasonably I think, as follows:

[H]e essentially wants to have around him the people who he knows best, who he has worked with as a senator, as a campaigner, as president. These are not outsiders, anything but. This is, if anything, this is a narrowing or tightening of the national security team at the White House.

To this, Slaughter responded:

Only a man can say this is the narrowing of the team. This is adding two important women to key positions in the White House in a way that I actually think is very important. These are more diverse voices right there. And, actually, although they do all know each other, I think there’s a broader range of views with Susan Rice and Samantha Power, with many of the other people who are in the White House.

This comment, aside from being highly unpersuasive and self-serving (since Slaughter wants to intervene in Syria and Haass doesn’t), is just downright bizarre—entirely over the top. Too bad Woodruff cut off the discussion at this point, denying Haass an opportunity to respond, or we would have perhaps had  some real entertainment for a change.

No, pace Slaughter, these personnel changes are not the harbinger of a “broader range of views.” On the contrary, the removal of Donilon eliminates a voice of cautious realism, and turns management of the store over to the hawkiest of liberal hawks.  And this is puzzling: Why would the President, whose body language and instincts, especially since the foolish decision to start a war in Libya, all point to restraint—as do, of course, his selections of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to lead the State and Defense Departments—dump Donilon and elevate these two blood-on-the-saddle Quixotes? And why would he do this, after all has been said and done, when he has essentially sided with his Vice-President (Donilon’s patron and confidante) against all others over Afghanistan?  It was Biden, pretty much alone, who argued back when for a drawdown of policy ambitions in Afghanistan—wanting a residual counterterrorist posture rather than a larger nation-building one. (And I have to say, after a career, going back to his entry into the Senate in 1972, of getting just about every major judgment wrong, Biden finally got a big one right.) And push come to shove after a several-year detour, the President now agrees. Point: The evidence out there suggests that the President has suffered from taking the advice of the liberal hawks within. So why elevate them?

Now, none of this means that the President has to accept advice he doesn’t agree with, and it doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to hear a range of views. Susan Rice’s job will be, in part, to play honest broker—making sure the President hears all sides of complex judgments—and there’s no reason to assume that she’ll bend the cards. Still, these changes are a little perplexing. Unless…

Let me repeat: I have no inside information about this, and one needs to distrust logic as a guide to assembling an account of motives. But I don’t see why I should be denied a little harmless fun. So here’s a yarn spun for you, dear readers, to contemplate.

John Kerry talks to the President some weeks back and says, hey, let me see if the Russians are finally ready to lean on Assad, so we can solve this mess in Syria without having to do anything kinetic. And the President says, sure, give it a shot; what do we have to lose? We’ve been playing diplomatic pantomime with the Russians for a while now, largely as a way not to have to do anything risky or effective, so what’s the diff? And Kerry thinks, I’m a new guy; I have a clean slate; Lavrov doesn’t detest me like he did my predecessor; maybe I can get something going here.

Ah, but what happens? Kerry goes and talks to Putin, and Putin turns out to be the better mime. Worse, as Kerry is leaving Putin and Lavrov kick him in the ass with prospects of new missile sales and deliveries to Assad, Hizballah and their thugs. The Russians then have the nerve to lecture us and the Europeans about the dangers of arming the rebels, even as they are pouring as much lethal stuff onto the battlefield as fast as they can, and advising, Chechnya-style, how the Syrians can murder their own citizens in Qusayr and Homs. And do the Europeans or we Americans publicly point out this outrageous exercise in hypocrisy?  Of course not.

But Kerry is pissed. He knows he’s been diddled. He takes it personally. He realizes he’s in the process of being de-scrotumized before his first few months as Secretary are even finished. So he wants to go tell the President that we can’t let this pass; we have to do something. (I have already made my suggestion as to what that might be.) But Tom Donilon either stops him, or counters him, because he worries that an agitated Kerry is not really thinking straight. And so Kerry, pissed off now even more than before, tells the President: Boss, it’s either him or me—one of us has to go. And Obama knows right off that the politically less damaging person to sack is Donilon.

Does this mean, therefore, that U.S. policy toward Syria is about to change dramatically? Has the President been decisively swayed by convincing French evidence that the Assad regime has indeed used sarin—so that his red line now actually looks red to him rather than pale pink? Are Anne-Marie Slaughter and her two newly elevated female associates within about to get their hearts’ desire: a U.S.-led invasion of Syria, of one sort or another? Not necessarily. But maybe. Who knows?  Not me.

All I know for sure is that future students of the history of U.S. foreign policy are going to have a helluva time keeping straight the fact that two different black women named Rice, one a stiletto-wearer, the other an elbow-thrower, served as NSC Advisor in the beginning of the 21st century. As if any of the rest of the story is going to make much sense to them.

  • WigWag

    And speaking of Anne-Marie Slaughter (we were speaking about Anne-Marie, weren’t we, Adam?), she writes an interesting column for the Atlantic Online. Anyone who reads her column knows that she is highly motivated to wax eloquent about the important and distinct role that women can play in formulating foreign policy.

    Slaughter has made it plain that she thinks that gender diversity is important not only because it allows men and women to compete on an equal playing field but because the female perspective brings something to the foreign policy table that the male perspective does not. I have no evidence for this, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Samantha Power and perhaps Susan Rice would agree.

    Slaughter’s comment to Judy Woodruff that Adam quotes is particularly interesting in light of Slaughter’s most recent offering at the Atlantic dated May 28, 2013. Parrying Haass in a particularly obnoxious manner, Slaughter says,

    “Only a man can say this is the narrowing of the team. This is adding two important women to key positions in the White House in a way that I actually think is very important. These are more diverse voices right there.”

    The “diversity” that Slaughter is referring to is not just the addition of the voice of liberal hawks to a team that includes realists, it must refer to the addition of women to a team of men.

    Slaughter’s Atlantic article,

    http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/05/the-real-problem-with-the-babies-are-a-focus-killer-theory-bad-for-business/276282/

    focused on a comment that the famous hedge fund manager, Paul Tudor Jones, recently made about the ability of women to succeed in the testosterone ladden world of securities trading. For those who don’t know him, Tudor-Jones is one of the most famous investors in America; his net worth is denominated in the billions and many of the wealthiest Americans invest in his funds.

    Tudor-Jones is also an extraordinarily generous philanthropist; far more generous in fact than the self-promoting George Soros. Tudor-Jones is the founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, a not-for-profit organization funded primarily by the hedge fund community that donates billions (not millions but billions) to a variety of causes related to hunger and poverty. For years, Tudor-Jones paid 100 percent of the operating expenses of this philanthropic organization. Tudor-Jones is no reactionary. In 2008 he was a bundler for Obama but like many of his hedge fund colleagues he eventually became disenchanted with Obama and supported Romney in 2012.

    In her article that I mentioned above, Slaughter excoriates Tudor-Jones for a comment that he made at a recent commencement exercise at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Tudor-Jones made the mistake of treading outside of the zone of the politically correct when he said,

    “…women will never rival men as traders because babies are a focus killer.” Tudor-Jones went on to say, “As soon as that baby’s lips touched the bosom, forget it.”

    Tudor-Jones’ remark inspired Slaughter to throw a hissy fit. Apparently Slaughter thinks that it is perfectly appropriate for her to suggest that women have a unique perspective to offer in the field of international relations merely on the basis of their gender but if Tudor-Jones suggests that gender differences might be relevant in the world of finance he has committed an unspeakable act.

    The real irony in all of this is that just about a year ago (July, 2012) Slaughter published a cover story for the Atlantic entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Slaughter mentions that she left the Obama Administration and returned to academia when she found it too difficult to juggle her DC job with her responsibilities toward her two sons.

    When Tudor-Jones suggested that caring for children might distract women from focusing on their jobs as Wall Street traders Slaughter accused him making an outrageous statement. Yet when she admits that she left government because her position was too demanding to allow her to spend time with her sons, she thinks that’s perfectly fine.

    Some time ago, Adam Garfinkle pointed out in one of his posts that sometimes hypocrisy is a virtue in the field of international relations. Anne-Marie Slaughter is the poster child for that point of view.

    • John Burke

      Gender differences are only allowed if they point to some female superiority.

  • K2K

    Salty words for an imaginary Kerry scenario.

    The NSA was intended to be a referee+ to coordinate at the Deputy level, so no one should be surprised about Susan Rice. I guess NSA looked easier than spending more time with teenage children.

    It is poetic if Samantha Power gets the chance to prove or not how to achieve R2P in real world/real time.

    Personally, I think a mapmaker should be the USA’s UN Ambassador.
    I imagine a world where men find it more fun to re-draw their maps in a setting like Potsdam, where negotiations took place in a building separate from each nation/tribe/sect residential housing, separate from each other,

    versus shooting their way to their imagined borders.

    I am re-reading Bullough’s “Let Our Fame be Great”, always for the Circassians, but then Chechnya hits harder.

  • John Burke

    Hmmm. You did call it harmless fun, but it’s worth noting that stories abounded months ago that Donilon might be leaving as of the second term, and of course, that has been accompanied by speculation that Rice would succeed him since she got knocked out of SecState by the Benghazi flap.

    Be that as it may, I, too, find most punditry about personnel appointments to be simplistic. It’s just as likely that Obama likes Rice and Power, feels he owes them, and generally trusts their judgment. I also think that political commentary usually tries to attribute an action or event — especially decisions by officials– to a single cause or motive (it’s easier to talk or write about), often related to the commenter’s pet issue. But few such actions have a single cause and political leaders almost always have multiple motives (eg, “I like Susan. I owe her. I want to put a Black woman in a top post before I’m through. She’s tough enough to keep prima donnas like Kerry and Hagel in line. It’ll show my base that I’m not the least intimidated by months of Republicans bashing me on Libya. The timing is good because Susan’s interventionist rep might keep people guessing about Syria. I could give the job to Dennis but I need him as COS so who else would I put at NSC?)