How the Obama White House runs foreign policy

The Washington Post reports: When Susan E. Rice took over as President Obama’s national security adviser two years ago, she was struck by how the White House had grown. Since she had last served on the National Security Council, during the Clinton administration, its staff had nearly quadrupled in size, to about 400 people.

Earlier this year Rice embarked on an effort to trim that number, hoping to make the policy­making process more agile. By mid-July, she said in an interview, the staff had been cut by 6 percent.

But it may be too late to change impressions of an NSC bureaucracy whose size has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.

In the Defense Department, where mistrust of the White House has persisted since the administration began, Obama is described as resolute and bold when a quick executive action is needed on operations such as hostage rescues and targeted captures and killings.

However, when the president has wanted to move swiftly on some of his most ambitious policy initiatives — the opening to Cuba and the early Iran nuclear negotiations — he has circumvented the usual practice for decision-making and kept a close hold within the White House.

Two senior NSC officials — deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes and then-Latin American director Ricardo Zuniga — handled secret talks leading to last December’s announced opening to Cuba. The White House did not inform Secretary of State John F. Kerry until the discussions were well underway, and State Department officials in charge of the region found out only as they neared completion.

The success of those policies — along with a climate deal with China, trade agreements and other legacy-building achievements in recent months — have boosted internal morale and for some, at least, validated the way the administration operates.

But on a host of other important issues, the NSC, designed in Harry Truman’s time to coordinate sometimes-conflicting diplomatic and defense views, is still widely seen as the place where policy becomes immobilized by indecision, plodding through months and sometimes years of repetitive White House meetings. [Continue reading…]

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