A Thousand Envoys Bloom

A Thousand Envoys Bloom

Mini Teaser: Obama has assembled a crack national-security team, filled with sharp minds and even-sharper personalities. Our economic wise men too may be sharp, but with a groupthink typical of a team of neophytes.

by Author(s): David Rothkopf

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.

First, carefully considered policies aside, each administration is tested by unexpected crises that define it, and the interaction among the president and his senior advisers is shaped as much by individual characters, their different experiences and the nature of the relationships between them as by anything else. Whether this means the inexperienced but intuitive Bush deferring to the dominant and ideologically influenced team of Cheney and Rumsfeld after 9/11, or the inexperienced and hesitant Clinton turning to his inexperienced and hesitant team during Rwanda, or the highly effective, well-trained and collegial team of Bush 41 rising to the challenges of the fall of Communism, the "who" of each administration is central to determining its fate . . . and ours.

Second, human nature being what it is, rifts and tensions always emerge in collaborations among powerful people. The character of the president's team determines whether those become toxic-as in the case of famous battles between Powell and Rumsfeld, or between Weinberger and Shultz, or between Brzezinski and Vance-or whether they are handled constructively, giving the president real choices through the well-managed processes of the Eisenhower, Bush 41 or later Clinton years.

Third, because the U.S. policy apparatus is essentially designed to serve one individual-the president-and to reflect his or her needs and vision, relationships with, and access to, the president determine very much who has influence and who does not, which perspectives will gain traction and which will not, and therefore what the outcomes will be. It doesn't always feel good to be close to the president. But it is the clearest and most dependable path to real policymaking power in the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Several core stories emerged about the formation of the Obama administration's national-security team, none more dramatic in the eyes of the media than the incoming president's decision to offer the job of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton. The appeal of the story lay in the idea that perhaps these once-fierce rivals on the stump would not get along as colleagues in the executive branch. A particularly common angle was whether Clinton, who was portrayed as being somewhere between a strong-willed, independent-minded woman and a conniving megalomaniac (depending on the political bent or objectives of the commentator), would put her team or Obama first.

Based on events to date, it seems these fears were overplayed, probably in an effort to sell newspapers (apparently without success) or perhaps copies of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals , whose title became the cliché of the transition (even though its premise-that Lincoln's team was somehow unique in the degree of rivalry among strong figures with national constituencies-just doesn't stand up to scrutiny).

Clinton has kept her head down, has not upstaged the president in any way, has implemented his agenda and has focused on outreach to foreign governments and on repairing the damage done to U.S. international relationships during the Bush years. Clinton and Obama have very similar personalities. Both are serious-minded, studious people who are wonks down to the very fiber of their being. They approach issues the same way, in precisely the same manner you might expect of former "best students in the class."

Essay Types: Essay