The Declinists Win

If anyone still doubted that America's foreign policy is in crisis, the appointment Friday of Thomas Donilon to be our new national-security adviser should be final proof.

Set aside the fact that Donilon served as in-house counsel at Fannie Mae, the epicenter of the subprime-mortgage mess and subsequent financial meltdown--something any other administration would see as evidence of less than stellar judgment. Set aside the reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had said Donilon's appointment would be a "disaster" or that Donilon fought hard against our military's strategy for winning in Afghanistan--although that seems precisely why Obama now wants him in the White House.

Even set aside the fact that Donilon's mentor is our buffoon-in-chief, Vice President Joe Biden.

The modern role of national-security adviser was created by and for one man, Henry Kissinger.

The fact that such a lightweight now occupies the single most important job for shaping the future of American power, short of the presidency itself, shows that the administration sees national security as a relatively minor priority compared to, say, currying favor with the Muslim world or running down allies like Britain and Israel.

Some background is in order.

The modern role of national-security adviser was created by and for one man, Henry Kissinger. With the blessing of President Richard Nixon, Kissinger used it to circumvent the Pentagon and State Department on the twin impasses that were undermining America's position in the world, Vietnam and China.

Kissinger had the ruthless will but also the superb vision to make it work, first creating the opening to China, which changed the face of Asia but also ensured the Soviet Union's eventual defeat in the Cold War, and then extricating America from Vietnam after securing South Vietnam's military security (a success that an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, elected in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then undercut and destroyed).

Kissinger crafted a position that requires a person of similar skill and vision and presidential trust. Although even his best successors like Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley never quite measured up to the Kissinger standard, they never forgot that their primary job was to make sure that petty rivalries or small-minded group-think at the Pentagon, State or CIA never be allowed to threaten America's preeminent global position.

In short, the National Security Agency has to be a Gulliver who pulls the president free from the strings and red tape that Lilliputian bureaucrats, ambitious politicians and assorted self-interested policy wonks try to throw over him.

Now, the men from Lilliput have won.

Donilon is the anti-Kissinger, the bureaucrat's bureaucrat. By every account, he measures success by the number of position papers he has read and sees process as important as substance in foreign policy.

He learned this working as chief of staff for the most colorless and ineffectual 20th century secretary of state, Warren Christopher. Formerly No. 2 at State in the Jimmy Carter years, Christopher embodied the Carter mindset of seeing America as an arrogant problem child that needs to be spanked and grounded if the world is to have any peace.

That mindset now rules the Obama White House.

It's why Obama is comfortable with America's steady decline both economically and strategically, why he's pushing for more defense cuts and why he clearly resents having been talked into backing the surge strategy in Afghanistan--a problem he wishes would simply go away.

It's also why he's prepared to hand over deadly challenges like Iran and the War on Terror to a barrage of UN resolutions and Predator drone strikes, while farming out important foreign-policy initiatives to mediocrities like Biden and Sen. John Kerry. Their abject incompetence and incoherence (Biden pushing for partition of Iraq back when the war was going badly, and then denying he ever did; Kerry the former anti-war activist sent to tell the Pakistanis to kill more terrorists or else) only serves to promote Obama's larger agenda of creating a world in which America's interests take a back seat--even as he squanders the power and prestige America has built up since the Reagan years to do it.

Donilon now can facilitate that process. It's a shame. Far better that the position of national-security adviser be left vacant than it pass to the man from Lilliput.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

Photo Credit: vgm8383/Flickr/Creative Commons

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About the Author


  • Arthur Herman is a historian and author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008), the Mountbatten Prize–nominated To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, 2005), the New York Times bestseller How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, 2001), and many articles on foreign and military policy. At AEI, Dr. Herman authored a new book that traces the mobilization of American industry, technology, and material production over the course of World War II.
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