Obama’s foreign policy juggernaut, including Tom Donilon, and the risks of hubris (updated)

jug[ger[naut  n.  (altered < Hindi Jagannath < Sans Jagannatha, lord of the world < jagat, world + natha, lord)
1 an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, whose idol, it was formerly supposed, so excited his worshipers when it was hauled along on a large car during religious rites that they threw themselves under the wheels and were crushed
2 (sually j-) anything that exacts blind devotion or terrible sacrifice
3 (usually j-) any relentless, destructive, irresistible force

–Webster’s New World Dictionary

Jug·ger·naut   /ˈdʒʌgərˌnɔt, -ˌnɒt/ Show Spelled (juhg-er-nawt, -not) noun
1. ( often lowercase ) any large, overpowering, destructive force or object, as war, a giant battleship, or a powerful football team.
2. ( often lowercase ) anything requiring blind devotion or cruel sacrifice.
3. Also called Jagannath. an idol of Krishna, at Puri in Orissa, India, annually drawn on an enormous cart under whose wheels devotees are said to have thrown themselves to be crushed.

Origin:  1630–40; < Hindi Jagannāth < Sanskrit Jagannātha lord of the world (i.e., the god Vishnu or Krishna), equivalent to jagat world + nātha lord


Tom Donilon appeared on the Charlie Rose television program for an hour on January 27, during which he expounded on the outstanding successes of President Obama’s foreign policy decisions and the process (led by Donilon) for reaching important foreign policy decisions.

Donilon was brilliant, and was it was not hard to see why President Obama chose him to be National Security Advisor after Gen. James Jones left in October, 2010, given his intellectual brilliance and highly articulate presentation of his views. Undoubtedly, Donilon is the kind of person Obama likes to be briefed by, someone with the intellectual brilliance to engage the president.

Still, the Oberver was left with a strange, intuitive feeling after watching the interview.

Absent from Donilon’s interview was any expression of self-doubt, any suggestion that the policy decisions made by Obama could be problematical in some ways, and could even potentially produce catastrophic results.

Areas where the foreign policy of the United States is open to serious questions, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, were quickly addressed in an intellectually authoritative manner.

There was no doubt that Donilon thought Obama was doing a brilliant job on foreign policy, was an unusually effective “executive”, and that Donilon himself, by the way, was doing an outstanding job for his boss.

After mulling these intuitive and inchoate misgivings over for a day, it all came together and “clicked”.

Here, on full display, was the enormous hubris of Obama and the foreign policy juggernaut he has created.

For his part, Charlie Rose failed to raise and insist on real responses to probing questions about the foreign policy of the United States. This is not an unusual role for Rose to assume, but last night–given the opportunity–it was particularly disappointing.

That’s it: hubris.

“The smartest guys in the room,” like at Enron. The overweening confidence of a foreign policy team that believes they are smarter, faster, and know better than all of their critics combined.

In view of these perceptions, it is useful to reconsider some earlier comments about Donilon, to see whether the characteristics they evoke appeared also to come through in the interview.

For a critical take on Tom Donilon, citing criticisms by Robert Gates and former National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, see Marcus Baram, “Tom Donilon Would Be A ‘Disaster’ As National Security Adviser, Robert Gates Reportedly Said,” The Huffington Post, October 8, 2010, updated May 25, 2011.

Baram quotes Bob Woodward who, in his book Obama’s Wars, reported the following regarding Donilon:

Donilon, who previously worked as a vice president for floundering mortgage giant Fannie Mae … was known for his strong views and opinions, once offending Defense Secretary Robert Gates so much during a meeting that the Pentagon chief almost walked out, according to Woodward.

He also reports that Woodward’s book quotes Gates as asserting that Donilon would be a “disaster” as National Security Advisor.

According to Woodward, in a meeting in his office in 2010, Jones had told Donilon he had three major shortcomings:

First, he had never gone to Afghanistan or Iraq, or really left the office for a serious field trip. As a result, he said, you have no direct understanding of these places. “You have no credibility with the military.” You should go overseas. The White House, Situation Room, interagency byplay, as important as they are, are not everything.

Second, Jones continued, you frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with. Gates had mentioned this to Jones, saying that Donilon’s sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he nearly walked out.

The third criticism was that Donilon was insensitive with his dealings with his staff at the National Security Council.

So, there you have it. Donilon, the gatekeeper for Obama, full of the same hubris that the president himself exhibits.

To be fair to Donilon, perhaps he is only reflecting–to some extent, at least–the hubris of his boss. Also, all things being equal, we are fortunate to have a brilliant and highly articulate national security adviser.

Having said that, if Donilon still has shortcomings such as those suggested by his critics, procedures need to be put in place to ensure that Obama hears cogent dissenting views.

Though it would not be easy, perhaps President Obama urgently needs to establish an independent channel through which he can hear and discuss the views of outside critics and observers on a regular and recurrent basis, and even those from within the government whose views have not prevailed. A kind of team B could be set up, independent of Donilon, so that the preseident would be certain to hear the dissenting views on the most critical issues.

The difficulty the president might have in hearing this suggestion, and giving it serious consideration, points to the underlying problem.

Perhaps it is time for President Obama to reread, once again, David Halberstam’s brilliant book on John F. Kennedy and the decisionmakers he surrounded himself with, The Best and the Brightest. Obama is believed to have read the book before he became president or during his first days in office.

Other books that the Observer would suggest he reread again now, include the following:

The Guns of August

The March of Folly


Essence of Decision (2nd edition)

Good movies to watch, once again, include:

Blackhawk Down

The Quiet American

The Candidate

Midnight Cowboy



Among the subjects not discussed in any significant way last night on the Charlie Rose program were those indicated by the following questions:

(1) It was notable in President Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptace speech in Oslo on December 10, 2009 that he studiously avoided the words “international law”, and did not articulate a coherent vision of the role that international law and institutions can and should play in the nation’s strategy for achieving peace.

What should that role be, and what should be the strategy of the United States not only for reacting to threats and using its military force, but also for creating a world at peace?

(2) Do you believe that the incredible weapons and capabilities the United States has developed, combining real-time intelligence with drone strikes and special forces operations, will never be developed by other major powers such as Russia, China, India Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other technologically advanced countries?

(3) Do you believe that in the long term the security of the U.S. can be assured by developing and using high-tech weapons, without the development and observance of international law frameworks and norms to govern their use?

(4) How do you view the impact of recent developments in national security doctrines, laws and policies on the safeguarding of fundamental rights protected by the Constitution and by International Human Rights treaties and conventions?

(5) What should be the role of the United States in developing and observing the international law governing the use of force? Is it performing that role now? What needs to be done to improve its performance?

The fundamental shortcoming in President Obama’s foreign policy and foreign policy decision making clearly appears to be hubris.

For example, the United States government asserts the right to unilaterally place an individual who is in a foreign country on a special targets list, and to proceed to execute him or her, whether by drone strikes or special operations forces.  It asserts further that this policy may apply to U.S. citizens, notwithstanding the 5th amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

On the other hand, the U.S. has been adroit in its multilateral diplomacy, both at the U.N. Security Council and in forging consensus among its alliance and coalition partners. The Security Council resolution authorizing the protection of civilians in Libya “by all necessary measures” is one example. Its success in forging consensus on sanctions against Iran, both in the Security Council and among other states, represents another.

Significantly, in the case of the Security Council, Ambassador Susan Rice has been unusually effective. Rice was Obama’s chief foreign policy advisor during the 2008 campaign.

To be sure, in the case of Iran, policy makers also need to bear in mind as we go forward the unpredictable impact of oil sanctions that pose an existential threat, such as those against Japan which were an important factor in the runup to Pearl Harbor.

Even with these qualifications, key foreign policy decisions appear to be made by an inner circle which reflects the supreme self-confidence of the President. The entire defense strategy and budget presented to the Congress is based on the assumption that drone strikes, targeted killings, and special operations can deal with military challenges in the Middle East, and elsewhere. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was reported to have personally authorized each drone strike for a very long time when he was at the CIA. It represents the grand triumph of Vice-President Joseph Biden’s anti-terrorism approach in the Afghanistan policy review in 2009. It amounts to betting the farm on a policy whose effects on the ground have not yet been proven. What if the theory is wrong? The foreign policy team is very short on members in the inner circle who have experienced “the fog of war”.

There certainly appears to be a lot of hubris at the White House and on Obama’s foreign policy team.

It is a juggernaut, not attentive to outside views, and tending to crush its opponents. True to its etymology, “the American juggernaut” appears to see itself as “Lord of the World”.

The Trenchant Observer


Comments are closed.