The smartest person in the room, and the Afghanistan policy review

Continuing Reflections on “the Smartest Person in the Room”

In a previous article, we offered some observations on the report that President Obama always considers himself to be the smartest person in any room.

See “Is Obama the Smartest Person in the Room?” October 22, 2010

This is a theme worth pursuing, for it touches on the issue of the hubris of the Obama administration, which grates even on some of the president’s strongest supporters.

Some 35 years ago, Richard C. Holbrooke, currently President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered a few insights into the issue of “the smartest person in the room.”

See Richard C. Holbrooke, “The smartest man in the room,” Harper’s Magazine, June, 1975.

Wrote Holbrooke,

In a similar instance, reported by Stewart Alsop, a senior CIA official who regularly briefed Defense Secretary McNamara on Indochina, using all the statistics and data compiled by the Pentagon, suddenly asked McNamara if he could offer a personal observation. When McNamara agreed, according to Alsop, the official said that he had spent much of his life working on Southeast Asia and, yes, he knew that the statistics showed that we were winning but that somehow, deep down in his bones, he just didn’t feel comfortable with all those signs of progress. Deep down he felt that things were rotten. McNamara asked for reasons, data, empirical evidence. The official couldn’t give any, he said; it was just a feeling, McNamara thanked him for his comments, dismissed him, and asked the CIA to send over another briefer.

Briefing someone that smart could be very difficult…People who had important things to say were cut off in mid-thought because they were not articulate enough to frame their thoughts in the precise, logical, bright way that was desired, if not required.

But sometimes the slower-speaking, less smart person was right; sometimes the smart ones were wrong. So finally it started to become clear: the smartest man in the room is not always right.

Worth noting is that Holbrooke is apparently not among the president’s favorite advisers.

Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars reports, ” It wasn’t until well into the Obama presidency that Holbrooke learned definitively how much the president didn’t care for him.” Woodward recounts how Holbrooke had asked hiim to call him “Richard” instead of ” Dick”, which Obama told others he found “unusual” and even “strange”. (p. 211) One might equally note that mortifying a key adviser is a bit unusual and strange as well.

Earlier in the book Woodward quotes Vice-President Joe Biden as telling Obama, “He’s the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met, but maybe the right guy for the job.” (p. 72)

Reading Obama’s Wars, one comes away with the impression that the strategic review of Afghanistan policy was managed by a president who thought he was the smartest person in the room, and who conducted the meetings he attended in a tense and formal manner which did not encourage genuine debate.

Weeks were spent discussing whether the mission of the allies and the additional forces requested by General Stanley McChrystal was to be to “defeat” the Taliban, or to “degrade” the Taliban so they couldn’t overthrow the government in Kabul. The practical significance of this distinction, on the ground, appears to be at best dubious.

Very little attention, according to Woodward, was paid to the question of what was likely to happen in Afghanistan after the U.S. drew down its forces, and just what a negotiated settlement with the Taliban would lead to after ISAF forces had withdrawn.

This was not Bobby Kennedy leading the sessions of the Ex-Com set up by President John Kennedy to advise him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Reading Woodward’s book, one is struck by the lack of discussion of how to handle the election fraud underway in Afghanistan, and of the full implications of sticking with Karzai. By not discussing this critical issue, and not having CIA Director Panetta or Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair present at the last meetings, a critical opportunity to change the dynamics of the governance game in Kabul was lost. This opportunity was right under their noses, so to speak, but–at least according to Woodward–not directly discussed.

Ambassador Eikenberry was absolutely rignt in pointing out in his cables that the Afghanistan policy review had a very narrow focus, and did not adequately take a wide range of considerations into account.

The way this policy review was managed by the president is troubling, and requires further reflection.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.