One way of looking at the federal government is that part of it is permanent and another part of it is transient. The transient government comprises those elected officials and political appointees who change when administrations change.
There are exceptions (like Bob Gates staying on at Defense), but presidents work hard to fill as many positions as the law allows with folks beholden, loyal and like-minded. After all, elections matter and these political appointees reflect that constitutional process.
There are limits, of course, some in law because of 19th-century civil service reforms and others out of practical considerations. In early 2009 President Obama changed out Mike McConnell as director of national intelligence and me as CIA director, but he personally intervened to keep Steve Kappes on as deputy CIA director at Langley. And, as per tradition, he made no other changes in the intelligence community.
Both permanent and transient elements contribute to the policy process. The permanent government brings with it fact-based expertise and experience, both of which are virtues unless they become so dominant as to foster stagnation. The transient folks bring a political legitimacy along with a vision and energy for change that stimulates progress unless they become so obsessive that it fosters recklessness.
There is a clear tension, but the tension can be creative. With ambiguous information and split counsel, presidents can be bold without being reckless, informed without being captured by expertise, as happened in both 2011’s Abbottabad raid and 2007’s Iraq surge.
Now in its seventh year, it might be good to take a look at some key decisions of the Obama administration through the lens of this distinction. It could be especially illuminating since this president is known to keep his own counsel and his administration has earned a reputation as being insular and controlling at the expense of Cabinet officials (who more tend to represent the views of the permanent government).
Out of the gate, two days after the inauguration, the president promised to empty Guantanamo within a year. I was still in government at the time and we all supported the concept of reducing the prisoner population. We already had released hundreds. But IF WE HAD BEEN ASKED, we would have pushed back on the 12-month timeline as creating pressure to make bad decisions on releases — which the permanent government was duty-bound to oppose, as it has and as it continues to try to do.
There may have been some of that same dynamic at work five years later with the Bergdahl swap for five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo. The political imperatives to clean up the Afghan battlefield (no man left behind) before the administration’s self-imposed clock ran out and to reduce the population at Guantanamo led to an incredibly awkward Rose Garden ceremony with the Bergdahl family, administration characterizations that a deserter had served with “honor and distinction,” and a new precedent of negotiating with terrorists that the permanent government would have to live with.
The administration routinely has shown itself to be fond of timelines, the better (I suppose) to enforce and police the implementation of decisions. Hence, withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan were on the clock rather than being conditions-based, the approach that would have been supported by the permanent government. Playing to the shot clock led to near disaster in Iraq (and a return of U.S. forces) and threatened to do the same in Afghanistan until withdrawals of troops were pushed to the right.
In Libya the president decided to go to war (although he later overruled DOD and directed it not be called a war to avoid triggering the War Powers Act) to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, a decision opposed by some National Security Council members. It took seven months, but Gadhafi was killed, his government destroyed, local tribes empowered and Libya descended into chaos.
Despite accurate predictions that — absent massive post-Gadhafi attention and involvement (and maybe even with it) — Libya would become a failed state, “leading from behind” ensured that not even the heroic efforts of a murdered American ambassador could forestall a terrorist arms depot and safe haven.
The ambassador was killed, by the way, despite repeated requests for increased security within the permanent government that went nowhere with an administration set on “normalizing” its diplomatic footprint in Libya and then later trying to exonerate itself with a story that “the video made them do it.” I know of no one currently or previously in the permanent government who thought that Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s Sunday morning talking points could stand for very long.
The permanent government has been posting alarms elsewhere. Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn has made it clear that at least his corner of the American intelligence community did not believe that al Qaeda was on the run, that the tide of war was receding or that the Islamic State was the “JV team.”
Back when the Syrian battlefield was more malleable and limited force could still achieve something, the president rejected counsel coming from his intelligence and security communities to act. Acting even then was a risky course and success was not guaranteed, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario worse than the one in which we find ourselves now, with a terrorist state the size of Belgium straddling the ancient trade routes of the Middle East.
Ditto for Ukraine, where truly unnerving Russian aggression has been met with sanctions against a small circle of Russians and little else. Even the isolation imposed on Russian President Vladimir Putin for seizing the Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine seems to be fraying with last Friday’s pilgrimage to Sochi by Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
And arms to the Ukraine — something publicly supported by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (and, I suspect, many others) — have been vetoed by the White House, even though defensive weapons would underscore American support of Kiev to friend and foe alike and would up the cost to Mr. Putin for continued adventurism.
Which suggests the questions of red lines, one of which the president announced independently not just of the permanent government but apparently of his personal staff when, during a 2012 press op, he extemporaneously declared Syrian use of chemical weapons unacceptable. Once drawn, though, the line took on real meaning for the permanent government since — if American red lines had no real effect — they would have to live with the consequences for a very long time.
I know that I am out of government and that my field of view is limited, my lens likely distorted and the light often faded. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much daylight between an administration and the permanent government, particularly the part in the American security community.
This is not about disloyalty or a breakdown in the chain of command. Folks will do their duty (or, perhaps more accurately, a lot less than what it is they think their duty should be).
This is more about the lack of a shared worldview. And it is about the time horizons within which each is operating. For one, the deepest view is about legacy, defined perhaps less as history and more as putting some points on the board in the next two years. For the other, it is more about a longer-term effect and what they might have to do to recover in a few years.
Good things to keep in mind as we approach a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.
• Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at email@example.com.