The Decline of the Vulcans: How Obama’s sidelined Cabinet explains his foreign policy

November 14, 2013

A 2011 photo shows President Obama talking with then-Chief of Staff Bill Daley, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and speechwriter Ben Rhodes while on an official trip to Brazil. (Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

Cabinet-level positions can be frustrating in any administration, but are especially so under President Obama, whose White House marginalizes its Cabinet "to an extreme," according to an extensive story by Glenn Thrush in the new Politico magazine.

Of particular interest, for readers interested in U.S. foreign policy, is Thrush's account of how Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates started out as "probably [the cabinet's] most powerful" member but ultimately came to feel sidelined and ignored. The story seems to confirm a long-observed trend in the Obama administration: Foreign policy decision-making has shifted from the pros in the State Department and the military to a small number of younger staffers in the White House.

"The West Wing’s obsessive control of messaging drove Gates crazy," Thrush writes, "and he felt crowded by young amateurs in the White House who had much less experience and much better access to Obama — guys like [White House Chief of Staff Denis] McDonough and speechwriter Ben Rhodes, who would weigh in after the secretary’s SUV had departed for the Pentagon."

It wasn't just that Gates saw his influence wane over White House foreign policy decision-making, the story says – the White House insiders who'd crowded him out eventually started following him back to the Pentagon, playing a greater role at Gates's home institution.

Of course, Cabinet secretaries will lose some debates in any presidential administration. Most of Ronald Reagan's Cabinet opposed his outreach to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, for example. Gates himself, at the time deputy CIA director, was a vocal critic of the policy, warning that Gorbachev was a wolf in sheep's clothing and not a true reformer. Gates turned out to be dead wrong, and Reagan's decision to go against his Cabinet was ultimately proven right. Still, as Thrush persuasively argues, the Obama administration has persistently sidelined its Cabinet to an extent that may well be unique.

This trend looks, in many ways, like the reverse of a phenomenon that journalist James Mann termed "The Rise of the Vulcans." In a book of the same name, Mann chronicled how a group of highly experienced conservative foreign policy veterans – almost all of them Cabinet members – came to dominate foreign policy-making in the George W. Bush administration. The "Vulcans" – named after the Roman god of fire – included seasoned pros like Deputy Secretaries of Defense Richard Armitage and Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They played a tremendous role in shaping U.S. foreign policy during the Bush administration; the president frequently consulted with, or deferred to, that team, depending on your view.

It's no secret that Obama came into office seeing his successor's foreign policy as a series of catastrophic failures. His desire to avoid similar mistakes, as much as his particular personality and his tendency to surround himself by young and ultra-loyal insiders, may help explain Gates's disillusionment. The former CIA director was a veteran of the Bush administration, after all, where he was given significant space to clean up the messes left by Rumsfeld. Gates was never a "Vulcan" of the Bush administration, exactly, but he'd had the power of one.

The decline of the foreign policy Vulcans under Obama may go a long way to explaining his administration's sometimes puzzling foreign policy. The vacillations over important issues — for example Obama's 2009 commitment to a "surge" in Afghanistan followed by a 2011 disavowal of that strategy — make more sense in this light. The administration changed policy on Afghanistan as the military failed to secure gains there, yes, but also as his administration shifted its decision-making center of gravity from Vulcan-style veterans to White House insiders. The "surge" had been favored by military leaders such as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who won out against a group of White House skeptics, led by Vice President Biden. Two years later, McChrystal was gone and the surge had fallen out of favor – along with the Pentagon's influence over Afghanistan strategy.

As foreign policy decision-making power has shifted away from the Cabinet – and from the agencies they represent – it's appeared to flow to Obama loyals such as McDonough and Rhodes, as well as Samantha Power — an adviser who recently became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

That push-pull between Cabinet secretaries and Obama advisers seems to have been fiercest around the issues where the Obama administration has appeared most inactive, perhaps reflecting an internal deadlock. That has been most true in the Middle East, where, for example, the administration responded to Egypt's July military coup with the satisfy-no-one half-measure of suspending some military aid to Cairo months after the fact. Maybe most pointedly, the administration committed in September to launching limited military strikes against Syria – a policy that bore the fingerprints of Obama loyalists like Power, but with which Cabinet secretaries and military leaders were almost transparently uncomfortable. The White House backed off the strikes when Congress made its opposition clear and when Moscow gave them an exit by suggesting that Syria could surrender its chemical weapons instead.

Tellingly, when Obama decided to nix the strikes, Thrush reports that his two most important cabinet secretaries were not even in the room. Neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were present for the decision, according to McDonough, who was.

Each presidential administration typically faces some of its toughest, and at times most internally divisive, challenges in foreign policy. And foreign policy is unusual in that it involves multiple powerful agencies – State, the Pentagon, the intelligence community and others – but has relatively little input from Congress. In many ways, then, how an administration internally organizes itself can be especially important when it comes to its foreign policy. That is especially apparent with the Obama presidency and the foreign policy legacy it's shaping for itself.

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Max Fisher · November 14, 2013