From the May/June 2009 issue of The National Interest.
IN THE early months of the Obama presidency, the national-security debate has focused heavily on two areas: personality and process. To many, the third vital component-policy-had largely been addressed and in broad terms resolved during the presidential campaign-Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran. Yet thus far, the personality discussion has been simultaneously overblown and misdirected, the process discussion has been largely technical and misguided, and the policy discussion has failed to address the most important concerns confronting the United States. In short, after the worst eight years in modern U.S. foreign-policy history, we may be setting the stage for potentially even-bigger mistakes to come.
ALL GOOD stories are about people not just because they give the reader something to relate to, but because ultimately the interplay between personalities is a prime driver-often the most important one-of how governments function. There is a perfectly understandable aspiration that decisions be made dispassionately, on the merits. But that seldom happens, and the relationships between and among policy stakeholders-political leaders, policy makers and their multiple constituencies-are often hugely influential, even if they are disdained and ignored by academic analysts (many of whom entered academia precisely because their people skills were so lacking).
So coverage of the transition and the early days of the Obama presidency that has focused on whether Hillary Clinton can get along with the president or whether the Clinton people will get along with the Obama people or how Vice President Joe Biden will react to being locked in his office may seem superficial and titillating, but it matters. Because history teaches us a few things about the central role personality plays in shaping how the U.S. national-security apparatus works.