From the very beginning, the Obama White House has been obsessed with the process by which national security decisions are made -- and with getting the press to treat that obsession as evidence that this White House is somehow more serious about national security decisions than its predecessor. Look no further than the Washington Post's credulous reporting last February on the changes Jim Jones planned to the structure of the NSC, a "sweeping overhaul" that would include nothing less than having the map "redrawn to ensure that all departments and agencies take the same regional approach to the world."
Jones would make sure that every decision was properly "teed up" for the president. In June, Jones told Jim Lehrer that "my goal is to make sure that the president is well served, that the issues are properly debated and teed up, that the right people are at the table, that everybody gets a chance to say what he or she thinks about the issue, and then when the president makes a decision that we implement it." Likewise, Jones told CNN's John King in October that any changes to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy would be "teed up appropriately" for the president. Get it? Jim Jones makes sure serious decisions get teed up appropriately.
In their ongoing effort to sell the four-month process (rather than the decision itself) that led to the president's decision to surge forces into Afghanistan, the White House shopped an account of the tick-tock to three national papers -- the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times -- "each of which," Mike Allen says, "amplifies the West Wing's desired storyline: A smart, probing president cuts through the fog of competing visions to come up with his own unique version of a surge." But if we can just focus on the fog for a minute...
If this four month policy review was properly "teed up" for the president and the other principals (McChrystal, Petraeus, Gates, Clinton, Mullen, etc.), how could this have happened:
In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a PowerPoint slide: "Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population."
"Is that really what you think your mission is?" one of the participants asked.
In the first place, it was impossible - the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a major part of the population. "We don't need to do that," Gates said, according to one participant. "That's an open-ended, forever commitment."
But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan - the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.
"I wouldn't say there was quite a â€˜whoa' moment," a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. "It was just sort of a recognition that, â€˜Duh, that's what in effect the commander understands he's been told to do.' Everybody said, â€˜He's right.'"
Either Jones forgot what McChrystal's orders were -- and it was Jones and his staff that wrote those orders -- or three months after giving McChrystal his mission, the staff at the NSC had changed their minds and simply failed to inform the commander on the ground of his new, far less ambitious, objective. So the White House process failed to make clear to the principals just whom we were supposed to be fighting; isn't that a pretty damning indictment of Jim Jones's role in all of this?
Furthermore, the process also seems to have left all the principals confused as to how the president understood his own July 2011 withdrawal date. When Gates went to the Hill last week to explain the president's strategy to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he was pressed on the July 2011 date, which Gates described as "a clear statement of [the president's] strong intent" to begin drawing down forces, but not a date certain. Today on Face the Nation, Gates stuck with his position that the 2011 date was aspirational -- "There isn't a deadline...What we have is a specific date which we will begin transferring responsibility for security district by district, province by province in Afghanistan to the Afghans."
Yet Robert Gibbs, who has an awfully close relationship with and proximity to the president, had no idea what the date meant when he was pressed by reporters earlier this week:
It was a point of contention at the White House briefing today - I asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs if senators were incorrect calling the date a "target."
After the briefing, Gibbs went to the president for clarification. Gibbs then called me to his office to relate what the president said. The president told him it IS locked in - there is no flexibility. Troops WILL start coming home in July 2011. Period. It's etched in stone. Gibbs said he even had the chisel.
Yet Gates is still out there saying it's not a deadline. And how could Gibbs be unprepared for the most obvious question a reporter could ask the day after the speech, i.e. how firm is that date? The principals weren't on the same page about who we were fighting, now they're not on the same page about when, or if, we are leaving. And this is the process that the New York Times calls a "a case study in decision making in the Obama White House."
Back in February, Jones told the Post,
Some principals will be regulars at the NSC "just by force of issues," he said, and "you can't just designate the whole government as being there." But everyone should be kept aware of "what's going on" and given an opportunity to say, 'Wait a minute, I've got something to say here.' "
Did Obama administration officials know "what's going on?" Do they now?