The dream team (with all its dysfunction) has been replaced by a group that is more closely aligned with the war-weary Obama — the president who wanted out of Afghanistan and resisted involvement in Syria. Officials I’ve spoken with are unanimous that, with the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry, this group is weaker and less self-confident. Susan Rice has been nearly invisible as national security adviser at a time when U.S. allies are hungry for contact. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a well-liked former senator, comes across in public as overwhelmed by some of the policy choices facing the Pentagon.
It’s a bad sign that, when Hagel was looking for a new deputy secretary to replace Ashton Carter, several top candidates, such as former undersecretary Michele Flournoy, weren’t interested. Hagel reportedly has settled on Robert Work, a former undersecretary of the Navy, who gets good marks from former colleagues but isn’t well known at home or abroad.
The reality is that Obama needs to own his foreign policy. He needs to be more strategic and less political. He needs to set a vision and articulate it to allies and adversaries. His national security adviser needs to help him focus and communicate policy decisions. These criticisms were true in the era Gates describes, when the president was surrounded by strong personalities. It’s even true now, when the cast is less experienced.