When do I get to kill somebody?… Presidents and Foreign Policy

Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us. – President John F. Kennedy

A few hours after an inauguration, a newly elected President sits down in the Oval Office while Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Director of National Intelligence, and the National Security Advisor hover around with worried faces and wringing hands… Caesar’s advisers wonder how to tell Caesar of the latest, and most urgent, crisis affecting the empire. These advisers probably, at times, act and look like Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Fegelein when the Soviet’s Red Army was moving closer and closer… Hitler later had Himmler arrested and Fegelein shot when all was lost and Hitler’s sanity was no longer present. No one likes to tell the King that his new clothes are absent… but someone has to do it. At that moment, the new President’s advisers inform him that there is a crisis in country X and the President has options A, B, and C. Charts, graphs, and documents provide advantages and disadvantages to all the options. The new President ponders and wonders aloud… “what about the [insert your favorite military force or weapon system]?” Foreign policy gets boiled down to a simple cost-benefit analysis… or a simple and quick… and deadly… pondering on military action. If you are the world’s lone military superpower… why can’t you just use it?

This past Monday, October 22, President Barack Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney squared off in their third and final debate and primarily discussed how they would be as the nation’s foreign policy leader and America’s military Commander-in-Chief. They batted around terms and ideas… they talked about how many hulls the US Navy should have… they talked about the difference between the use of advanced military technology… drones are good… and the tried and true methods of history… bayonets are limited. This debate provided a quick, and somewhat questionable, snapshot at how they would be as the man who makes the decision.

George Friedman, in “The Purpose of Presidential Debates,” states that the true objective of debates is:

A debate is not about policy. It is impossible to state a coherent policy on any complex matter in 90 seconds. The debates between Lincoln and Steven Douglas did go far in that direction, but then it wasn’t on national television, and it was for senator of Illinois, not the presidency. That left room for contemplation. It should be remembered that prior to the Kennedy-Nixon race of 1960, there were no debates, partly because there was no television and partly, perhaps, because the ability to debate was not seen as the appropriate measure of a president. 

Debates test one thing: the ability to quickly respond to questions of numbing complexity that are impossible to answer in the time available. They put a premium on being fast and clever but don’t say much about how smart a candidate is. Nor are they meant to, in part because being smart, in an academic sense, is not essential to be president — as many have demonstrated. At their best, debates test a candidate’s coolness under pressure and ability to articulate some thought at least vaguely connected to the question while convincing the viewers that you are both personable and serious.

In other words, debates… debates on foreign policy… allow the voter to view the candidates in a moment when they have to consider some serious and complex shit… and then make a quick decision… a decision that may result in the death of Americans, and the death of America’s enemies. Of course, there is the added level of seriousness… the ultimate level of seriousness… the death of innocent civilians.

Determining the killing of America’s enemies is no easy thing. Being a nation in love with efficient institutions, and a nation with a love for process, [1] modern American President’s have developed a system for targeting and killing its enemies. Today, the Washington Post has reported that over the past two years the Obama Administration has crafted a new process for hunting, finding, targeting and killing terrorists… this new process is called the “Disposition Matrix.” [2]

This Washington Post article states that the Disposition Matrix is a 4 step process:

  1. Agencies [3] compile names of terrorists, building rosters of terrorist organizations and affiliates.
  2. The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) generates lists of names based on specific presidential administration criteria. [4] The NCTC send the list of names for review by the Deputies Committee of the National Security Council. [5]
  3. The Deputies Committee culls the rosters of individuals who will be targeted with the President’s approval.
  4. President Obama signs off on the targeted individuals. *actually there is a fifth, and final, step… targeted terrorist is hunted and killed.

This process is “One of the things we are looking at very hard is how to institutionalize a process that will outlive this administration.” [6] This process is an attempt to ensure that the President has a method… a foreign policy method… in defeating America’s enemies. This defeating of America’s enemies is one of the many aspects of a presidency that receives constant scrutiny, evaluation, and criticism.

Rosa Brooks, at Foreign Policy magazine and law professor at Georgetown University, is one who has issue with how the Obama Administration conducts foreign policy. Ms. Brooks calls it a “dysfunctional foreign-policy team.” Prior to Monday’s debate, Ms. Brooks states, in an article, that it was President Obama’s last chance to “… convince American voters to give him four more years.” The article does identify the Administration’s successes, however, it primarily focusses on its shortcomings such as its Middle East initiatives, the escalating violence in Syria, the lack of ending the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, continued war in Afghanistan, and the continued muddiness that is Pakistan.

Ms. Parks recommends some fixes for the Obama Administration:

  1. Get a Strategy.” Like every supposed strategist since the beginning of time… and the thought of every deep thinking strategist since… Ms. Brooks laments the absence of a foreign policy strategy… regardless of it being grand or otherwise. Questioning the existential threat of terrorism is the thought behind this critique and recommendation.
  2. Get some decent managers.” Ms. Brooks believes the national security and foreign policy interagency (WHOLE of GOVERNMENT… WOG… WOG) process is in a constant state of crisis. Seems the modern world… the modern globalized world with its plethora of technology and endless news and intelligence cycles… has caused the Administration to be in a constant flux of reaction instead of proactive action. Would any modern presidential administration be free of this criticism considering the way the modern world works and interacts?
  3. Get some people who actually know something.” Can presidential advisors really know when the clothes are actually invisible or missing? Seems the Obama Administration is run by young and untried campaign aides while experienced experts are sidelined. Seems Young Turks [7] … young and inexperienced whippersnappers… are making important decisions. Ms. Brooks argues that the President is advised by individuals who don’t have the ability to advise on foreign and national security policy.
  4. Get out of the bubble.” Seems not only are Young Turks making decisions, but the National Security Staff runs a “tiny fiefdom” that includes gate keepers such as Deputy National Security Advisors Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes. An “echo chamber” that is familar to President George W. Bush is how Ms. Brooks describes it. Foreign policy and national security has supposedly been watered down to sound bites and talking points.
  5. Get a backbone.” President Obama has sound moral instincts according to Ms. Brooks… but he backs down. This spineless President may order more drone strikes than his predecessor… yet he is cowardly in his interactions with Congress on issues such as closing GITMO. Start thinking about his legacy is Ms. Brooks’ advice.
  6. Get rid of jerks.” On the campaign trail, President Obama famously stated “no assholes,” yet Ms. Brooks feels this has not carried over into his Administration. Seems this administration is full of infighting that spills over into the day-to-day activities. Ms. Brooks feels this is no way to “run a railroad.”

All of these critiques, and recommendations, center around the idea of command climate. Through the use of glib and colloquial terms, Ms. Brooks feels that American foreign policy is rudderless. Arguably, the Disposition Matrix is a step to correct a small portion of the Administration’s foreign and national security policy. Foreign and national security policy criticism and mistakes are not new… even the GOP’s iconic President (Ronald Reagan) was not free of making mistakes.

Al Haig was my dad’s infantry battalion commander in Vietnam… my dad said he was an asshole. Al Haig was President Reagan’s Secretary of State for approximately a year (1981-1982). Haig had a penchant for a certain style of speaking that was defined as “language characterized by pompous obscurity resulting from redundancy, the semantically strained use of words, and verbosity.” [8] It was this Al Haig that infamously said he was “in charge” following the March 30, 1981, assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Al Haig is also infamous for the “Haig initiative.” On the inauguration day, 1981, Secretary of State-designate Haig presented a draft National Security Decision Directive to President Reagan that reorganized how foreign policy was determined. This initiative basically placed the overall responsibility for the guidance and implementation of US foreign policy in the State Department. The initiatives overall intent failed, however, it did result in the President’s National Security Adviser, Richard Allen, losing direct connection to the President, and placed Allen under the supervision of White House Presidential Counselor Edwin Meese III. President Reagan did reinforce the idea that his Secretary of State was the “primary adviser on foreign affairs, and in that capacity, he is the chief formulator and spokesman for foreign policy for this administration.” [9] Following this, there were numerous changes to reorganizing the Reagan National Security Council. One time, Vice President George H.W. Bush was the proposed chair of a crisis management team. Different times saw different attempts at reorganization. The Department of State set up Interagency Groups for the world’s geographic regions, politico-military affairs, and international economic affairs. During the first Reagan Administration, the State Department was both in charge of foreign and national security policy.

In the second Reagan Administration, however, the National Security Adviser and some staff members took an aggressive role in the planning and execution of foreign policy in Central and South America. This aggressive role resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair. Power struggles among Young Turks… and experienced experts had, as some have argued, taken advantage of President Reagan and run roughshod over law and policy.

Presidential debates on foreign and national security policy do not provide specifics, however, they do provide a quick, and somewhat insightful, view on the candidate’s ability to quickly react. One doesn’t learn policy… one learns a bit about personality. This interpretation of personality may provide insight in to what type of advisers and advise the candidate will surround himself with and take. Criticism is easy… even when deserved or assumed. Advisors providing compliments on the emperor’s non-existent clothing is dangerous… emperors assuming the sword is always his best tool are even more dangerous.

Maybe debate questions shouldn’t be so much about policy… maybe they should be more situational and focussed on gauging a candidates quick response and abilities. Foreign and national security policy is complex… 90 second responses from candidates don’t provide the answer… but their ability to think fast and decisively do provide some insight into the candidate’s character.

[1] Even though, a German general supposedly said at the end of World War II “The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.”

[2] Greg Miller, “U.S. set to keep kill lists for years,” The Washington Post, October 24, 2012, p. A1.

[3] These agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Special Operations Command, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Agency.

[4] For example, a target list of terrorist leaders believed to be plotting attacks against US personnel in Yemen.

[5] The National Security Council’s Deputies Committee is chaired by Obama Administration’s counterterrorism advisor (John O. Brennan) and composed of deputy directors from the CIA, FBI, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the NCTC.

[6] An anonymous, but senior, White House official.

[7] Young Turks, originally, were a secularist Turkish nationalist reform party in the early 20th century. Today, the term “Young Turks” means any group or individuals, in an organization, that seek power and prominence.

[8] John Algeo, Fifty Years Among New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms, 1941-1991,”Haigism,” p.231.

[9] http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/nsc/


One thought on “When do I get to kill somebody?… Presidents and Foreign Policy”

  1. Reblogged this on Chad Coleman EMT and commented:
    More people need to read Shawn Reese. Everytime I read his blog or talk to him, I always learn something, and I dig what he has to say. Take a moment and review this, it provided for me a unique and well researched perspective and clearer picture on a most important issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s