We are now in that quadrennial season when Washington wonks spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to divine the policies of the next administration based on the individuals named as presidential advisers.
In theory, such analysis makes sense. Personnel is policy, and personnel have track records. In practice, the relevant tea leaves are not easily read.
As historian Tevi Troy makes vivid in his new book, “Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump,” advisers to the commander in chief compete—sometimes productively, sometimes disastrously—over both power and policy.
Those who advise presidents can turn out to be gurus, Svengalis or yes men. The presidents they advise can turn out to be temperamental, dogmatic or capricious. In the end, policies are adopted that no one expected, often with consequences no one intended.
Foreign policy and national security are especially susceptible to such conflicts. In seven of the 12 administrations Troy examines, it is the secretaries of state, national security advisers, and secretaries of defense who clash most consequentially.
For example, during the Nixon administration, the rivalry between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers escalated into a “feud”—that’s the word President Richard Nixon used when he later explained why, in 1973, he ended up giving both jobs to Kissinger.
President Jimmy Carter chose Cyrus Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor. Initially, they liked each other and seemed to be on the same page ideologically. It turned out, however, that “Brzezinski and Vance disagreed on virtually every key issue that came their way.”
Troy concludes: “Unfortunately for the nation, the fights played out in the context of, and contributed to, a worsening global situation, which included the Arab oil crisis, the Iran hostage crisis, and growing Soviet adventurism in the Cold War. The result was unnecessary confusion at a time when the world needed resolve and unerring leadership from the president.”
President Barack Obama gave Ben Rhodes, a young man with a master’s degree in creative writing, the curious title of deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting. Rhodes’s “rivalry was not with an individual but with a mindset,” writes Troy. Obama supported his deputy’s assault on the “blob”—Rhodes’s moniker for established foreign policy experts.
The policies Rhodes promoted led to more than 500,000 killed in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, a failed “reset” with Russia, concessions to Cuba’s rulers with nothing in return, and no apparent cognizance of the fact that Chinese Communists were eating our lunch.
At least regarding Syria, Antony Blinken, whom Joe Biden plans to nominate as his secretary of state, has been clear-eyed and candid. “I believe anyone who had any responsibility for our Syria policy has to look themselves in the mirror and say we failed—period,” he told The Atlantic’s Mike Giglio.
That failed policy, like virtually all the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East, was intended to appease Iran’s Islamist rulers. With this in mind, it would be logical for Blinken to advise Biden against jumping back into Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with both feet.
Should he do so, however, he might clash with John Kerry, who headed the negotiations that led to the JCPOA. Biden plans to name Kerry as his special envoy for climate, a very different portfolio. However, as Troy noted in an op-ed, Kerry’s position will have Cabinet-level status with an office in the White House, thereby giving him access that can translate into influence.
One also might wonder: How much advice will Biden receive from his former boss who, unlike most former presidents, never left Washington?
Biden’s disdain for President Donald Trump is clearly profound. Still, he must know that Trump and his advisers—who were numerous and frequently at daggers drawn as well—achieved some signal successes.
Certainly, Biden would be well-advised to build on the progress made toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. Also, Israel and the pragmatic Arab states are now singing from the same hymnal (so to speak) regarding Tehran’s neo-imperialist ambitions.
Will Blinken and Jake Sullivan, whom Biden plans to name his national security advisor, counsel their boss to at least take the views of these pro-American nations into account? Or will Biden, like Obama, insist on enriching the world’s leading terrorist sponsors—whose slogan and goal is “Death to America!”—in exchange for another vague promise to kick their nuclear weapons can down the road for a few years?
Final question: Will Biden recognize, as did the Trump administration, the inconvenient truth that China’s rulers threaten vital U.S. interests?
Sullivan last week tweeted that he was “deeply concerned” about the ongoing “assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms” by China’s rulers. And, over the weekend, he tweeted that the execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam was “another horrifying human-rights violation by the Iranian regime.” Do such tough tweets indicate tough policies to follow? Color me skeptical.
Troy has found no surefire model for commanders in chief and their advisers. An “ideologically unified administration” is likely to suffer from “group think and ossification,” he writes, while “a White House divided along clear ideological lines quickly devolves into factionalism.”
“For this reason,” he writes, “a successful executive must deftly balance the ideological differences, clearly delineate process and lines of accountability, and set the tone for natural personal differences without tolerating outright discord.”
Is Biden up to this challenge? That, too, I would submit, is beyond the ability of Washington wonks to predict.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”