Re Tom Donilon – Walt And Freeman Punch A Strawman

We, like many around town, don’t believe Donilon will make much difference as new national security advisor. We’re so underwhelmed we’ll just cut and paste some paragraphs from Walt’s Huffington Post ‘Foreign Policy’ blog (It once was a serious publication, really).

My reservations are two-fold. First, has Donilon ever expressed an interesting or novel foreign policy idea, or shown that he has a larger vision for what the United States’ position and strategy ought to be? If so, I haven’t heard about it. This isn’t just an academic’s desire for some broader theoretical framework, because foreign policy isn’t just about making a “to-do list” and patiently checking off different items. Instead, success depends on seeing the larger picture and figuring out how to set priorities and align different goals, so that actions taken in one arena don’t end up undermining other initiatives. That is especially true when a country is facing as many different challenges as the United States currently is, and when you have to make hard choices from among a set of bad alternatives.

Second, has Donilon ever taken a position that involved some level of moral courage? Has he ever done or said anything that might be regarded as controversial inside the Beltway? Given his long career as a lobbyist and political operative, that’s hardly likely. What was his view on invading Iraq in 2003, for example? Did he publicly oppose that boneheaded decision? Don’t think so. And given that the Obama administration’s defining characteristic in foreign policy has been a tendency to spell out promising courses of action and then beat a hasty retreat from them at the first sign of serious resistance, there’s little reason to expect someone with Donilon’s bio to act any differently.

Chas Freeman somehow summons energy to make more trenchant criticisms, per earlier link in Walt’s blog.

Nothing in his background as a lawyer or aide to elected officials and political appointees hints at any skill at strategic thinking, foreign policy formulation, or diplomatic maneuver that is directed at anyone other than domestic constituencies. He gives every sign of faithfully reflecting the political risk aversion, venal deference to campaign contributors, and constipated strategic imagination of the Washington establishment. We Americans have spawned our own version of the eunuchs of old, who flourished inside the walls of the Forbidden City or Topkapi/Dolmabahçe Palace. Their counterparts now practice the arts of the courtier within the Beltway at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. (It is said that Afghanistan has jirgas to make village-level decisions and loya jirgas to decide things at the national level, while Washington now makes decisions in circle jirgas.) Donilon is exhibit A of this archetypal Washington type; his presumed successor, Denis McDonough, is exhibit B.

Longtime readers know our views on Freeman’s acuity. Still, both miss the point. Presidents get a national security advisor and apparatus that conforms to their personality, recognized or not. True whether the idealized model is a Kissingerian Metternich or the process-oriented ‘preside but not decide’. And contra both Walt and Freeman, history also makes clear mediocrity is the norm.

Doubt it? As Warner Wolf used to say, ‘Let’s go to the videotape!’

Post Rostow and Henry the K, the Peanut Farmer relished Zbig (but not zo great, per the late Bill Odom) and Vance in perpetual paralysis. Reagan genially went through the shallow Allen, the entirely lamentable Judge Clark, the pitiful McFarlane, then the malignant Poindexter, lucking out briefly with the competent card puncher Carlucci. Then as final insult Reagan helped launch General Jello’s senior policy career. 41 manically fished, boated and played with Scowcroft. Don’t overlook the titans to follow: the deservedly forgotten Tony Lake, the Hogan trade lawyer Sandy Berger and finally the Led Zepp lovin’ first girlfriend, Cher Condi. Oh, and what’s-his-face. Yeah, him. Hadley. Right.

Who among that largely undistinguished list towers so obviously over a Donilon? Zbig fancies himself of Kissingerian World Historical stature, but remains by comparison red brick (much to the wounding of his still formidable but greatly relaxed vanity – we say this after decades of intermittent encounters). Still, compared to Clark? Lake? Berger? He was a Pole and Europeanist obsessing on the Sovs (‘Detente was buried in the sands of the Ogaden’ one his better lines) in the right place at the right time. He was also an economic illiterate while in the White House (We knew the man who tutored him privately on essentially freshman macro 101 when North-South became hip). His efforts to demonstrate academic bona fides re Japan and Asia? Risible.

Still, one can’t forget he was dealing with Vance *and* Warnke, both tripping over themselves to pre-emptively disarm and fly to Moscow empty-handed. All while the Peanut Farmer would play Queeg, spending hours personally doling out precious White House tennis court time. That’s bureaucratic Purple Heart territory. Plus, the man in retirement now has to watch his daughter coo at Scarborough.

America should take better care of those who sacrificed for her. Zbig gets a pass.

Scowcroft came closest to the wholly notional idealized national security advisor per Poli Sci 101 lectures. Contra Donilon, true, Scowcroft was accomplished before his star turn. Regardless, his effectiveness was not wholly innate but reflected. All knew he was the First Play Pal. Scowcroft also lucked out with Baker at State and pre-heart condition Cheney at OSD, carefully hiding his radicalism.

Scowcroft’s greatest sin? Going out of his way to pluck an obscure Cher Condi into the NSC. Sorry General. Some mistakes simply can’t be forgiven.

All of which is to say Donilon won’t make much of a difference. Taking Zbig and Scowcroft out and what is left? According to Chas Freeman’s portrait, Donilon is actually the post-1976 norm. Freeman’s likely rejoinder? ‘That’s my point’. To us his lamentations over a non-existent ideal past are overwrought.

Per Walt’s criticisms, we’d say the same about the Academy or the ‘foreign policy establishment’. Who can take anything like the Council on Foreign Relations seriously? Such supple weather vane intellects as Max Boot and Peter Beinart ‘Senior’ Fellows? Once upon a time, people actually told someone the truth when they said they read your article in ‘Foreign Affairs’. What’s Walt’s criteria today for demonstrated intellectual contributions? Facebook ‘Likes’?

A national security advisor is a staffer. Presidents largely determine ‘success’ or ‘failure’. (Watergate-era Executive collapse so far sui generis). Wilkerson’s process fantasies aside, presidential personality shapes the personalities and structures around him, regardless of statute, precedent or ‘tradition’. Jones found out the hard way. It’s delusional (or hyperventilating) to think that a national security advisor can orchestrate profound strategic change.

Obama’s no different. His private anger at military insubordination? His system adapted to him. He just doesn’t like what it reveals.

Good Lord. Over 1,000 words on something we don’t care about. Good thing we cut and pasted most of it.


  1. Cosmopolitan says

    I am stunned that Zbig would get a pass from Mr. Chas, just stunned. It was precisely Zbig’s obsession with the Russians (hatred, one might say) that led to the misguided baiting of USSR into Afghanistan. We know how well that worked out – we’re not yet done paying the price… Of course, Zbig is very proud of that accomplishment – and what followed…

  2. Comment says

    Contra Walt – why would Donilon follow his advice? Why would he want to say anything “courageous?” Obviously Walt does not like being tarred the way he has been – but that’s a fact – He is damaged goods- Donilon should want to avoid any Waltean fate – Donilon might have a totally different set of priorities.

  3. Comment says

    re Freeman – the idea of the strategic thinker – ignores the political reality that Obama has a range of options before they impede his more important domestic agenda. Not more important for Freeman, but far more important for Obama and most Americans.

  4. Comment says

    The problem with Walt and some of his allies – If Obama followed his advice he would have been facing impeachment a long time ago and he would be losing far far far more seats in the House – FP types like to spin this as a the necessary grown up thing to do – but just chucking over the Congress to the opposition is irresponsible – esp in light of their recent history and squalid present,
    Politics, their view, is to be looked down upon as they hurl thunderbolts from Mt. Realist or whatever,
    Walt would be better off just picking fights with Goldberg.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


CommentLuv badge