- - Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

NATIONAL INSECURITY: AMERICAN LEADERSHIP IN AN AGE OF FEAR
By David J. Rothkopf
Public Affairs, $29,99, 496 pages

Written as a 2016 campaign primer, “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” shows why David Rothkopf is the institutional memory of the national security establishment. The CEO of Foreign Policy magazine and a scion of Democratic policy elites, he knows everyone worth knowing and has read practically everyone else. Agree or disagree, you always enjoy his company, especially his relentless skewering of capital life absurdities.

Because of the author’s lofty position in the Democratic firmament, “National Insecurity” will be read as heresy tempered only slightly by that iconoclastic sense of humor. The book’s central thesis is a superbly documented readjustment of two prevailing Beltway myths: the underestimation of President George W. Bush and the overestimation of no-drama President Obama. While Mr. Bush was guilty of “overreaction and overreach in the wake of 9/11,” the Obama foreign policy has been consistent “self-doubt and risk aversion,” particularly against emerging threats such as the Islamic State, aka ISIS. Between overreaching and underwhelming, “American interests and those of our allies suffered” so that in 20 years, we went “from a bipolar world to a bipolar superpower.”

Mr. Rothkopf argues that the caricatures of Mr. Bush should “fade while more nuanced views come to light.” The Bush second-term team, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, are quoted extensively. Their common tasks: setting right key White House policy processes that had broken down after Sept. 11, 2001. When top-level ideologues (i.e., Dick Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld) were put aside, “management skills mattered” and so did top-down discipline.

No one in that turnaround comes across better than Mr. Bush, especially during the financial crisis of 2008. On that grim occasion, presidential leadership and even personal coaching provided the critical difference between survival and catastrophe. Mr. Rothkopf quotes an unnamed Obama official: “I saw [President Bush] spend twenty or thirty minutes talking a Cabinet official off the ledge. (Had the American people seen him) at just that moment of crisis, they would have a different view of him [and probably felt] that they had gotten their money’s worth … .” That’s a far different impression from those caricatures propounded by the usual media suspects, most of them Democrats.

Mr. Rothkopf begins his treatment of Mr. Obama by politely noting that “presidents are symptoms of their times [more] than they are shapers .” This is only the opening coda in his methodical deconstruction of the famously inept Obama foreign-policy process. Rather than using the National Security Council to coordinate and implement policy, every White House procedure came to reflect Mr. Obama’s “penchant toward methodical, extensive analysis and deliberation.” The White House staff naturally became more centralized, top-heavy and distracted. “[The] bloated Obama national security apparatus was seen as conducting too many meetings [that] did not actually reach conclusions, but only led to more meetings.”

In a scathing chapter on Afghanistan named after a Marx Brothers movie, “Hello, I must be going,” Mr. Obama presides over a torturous process that eventually included four separate policy reviews in eight months. The author correctly describes this debacle as “a mess. It showed a conflicted president learning on the job . It virtually [ensured] that the increased resources, if approved, would be wasted.” The fiasco eventually resulted in a West Point speech announcing the deployment of 30,000 additional American troops to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan — a phrase recently resurfacing with the Islamic State.

As if to remove all doubt about his profound ignorance of war and conflict, Mr. Obama in his “next breath announced a planned withdrawal” of those troops 18 months later. Among those wasted resources: the lives and limbs of American troops sent in harm’s way by a chronically inept president (my characterization).

Mr. Rothkopf also provides revealing portraits of inmates in the Obama White House asylum, from the “famed coarseness” of Rahm Emanuel to the backstairs kibitzing of Valerie Jarrett. In one unforgettable scene, U.N. Ambassador (and future National Security Adviser) Susan E. Rice extends her middle finger toward elder statesman Ambassador Richard Holbrook after he gently reproves her, “Susan. I understand. I was the youngest assistant secretary here once myself.”

This book is not perfect, never mentioning Benghazi, ignoring our overrun southern border and, especially with Egypt, putting a surprisingly smiley face on a catastrophically inept performance by Mr. Obama. However, Mr. Rothkopf is an insightful student of leadership who is always informative and frequently funny. He notes, for example, that, even before Ebola, Mr. Obama had created more policy czars than anyone since the Romanov dynasty. Because his readers will receive an exceptionally well-written tour of American national security issues, Mr. Rothkopf’s book should be read closely by Republicans and Democrats alike — but especially those Republicans seeking to challenge Hillary Clinton.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.


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