10/11/2010 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's National Security Carousel: Recurring Miscalculations

The essential job of the National Security Advisor is to act as custodian of the policy process -- to ensure its procedural integrity. Responsible decisions depend on coherent deliberations that are intellectually honest. Honesty in a careful vetting of information, in making explicit premises and assumptions, in laying out all reasonable alternatives along with their benefit/cost/risks. To do this formidable job effectively, the NSA ideally should combine intelligence, knowledgeable understanding of foreign policy issues and also a measure of dispassion. For advancing his own views can jeopardize his main function.

The other key is a good working relationship with the president whom he serves. The president must see the need to have a custodian, and then must pick someone he trusts. Otherwise, who holds the post is of secondary importance. The Bush the Elder/Scowcroft relationship stands as one model for an effective partnership.

Perhaps the NSA's most delicate assignment is protecting the president from himself. That means two things. First, to curb impulsive action -- whether it emerges from personality, pet ideas, or a combination. This is of little concern in the Obama White House since Obama has no fixed ideas in the foreign policy realm and, in any case, is an ultra cautious person.

Second, there is the obligation to protect the President's thinking from being captured by powerful persons, cliques or dogmas. Obama's instinctive respect for all established forces has made him singularly vulnerable to capture. Indeed, on Afghanistan he fell victim to the Pentagon phalanx of Gates, Petraeus, Mullen and McChrystal who imposed their mindset on him in last year's review.

The graphic account offered by Bob Woodward shows that General James Jones lacked the force of personality and/or privileged access to Obama to prevent that from happening -- even if he was so inclined. There is no sign, for example, that he advised Obama to make use of Ambassador (General) Karl Eikenberry's deep seated skepticism about our purposes in Afghanistan by forcing the quartet of military hawks to address his challenge directly.

Similarly, Jones has not steered the President off the suicidal diplomatic course of groveling before Bibi Netanyahu in ways that have cut the ground from under the United States' standing in the region. On this matter, the powerful forces are the Israel lobby and its tribunes inside the White House -- Emanuel, Axelrod -- along with Biden and Hillary Clinton.

When set in this context, the transition from Jones to Donilon is unlikely to change anything of paramount importance. Thomas Donilon is not an ideas man at a time when a fresh strategic perspective is the sine qua non for breaking from our self destructive behavior pattern on Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and in the pervasive 'war on terror' generally. True, he evidently shares Biden's qualms about forging blindly ahead in AfPak. We should bear in mind, though, that the latter's disagreement with the decision to escalate was mainly tactical. He preferred to keep our force levels constant while ratcheting up attacks on high value targets on both sides of the Durand line.

Biden's readiness to abandon the pretense of building a popular, democratic and competent regime in Kabul still left in place the critical judgment that we have critical interests at stake that we must persevere in pursuing indefinitely. Were Donilon's promotion to reinforce that line, so much the better -- relatively speaking. But the only way out of the quagmire requires a critical rethink of the fundamentals. At the end of the day, only the President can provide the impetus to insist such a root-and-branch review. Only the President has the power to impose it on his stiff necked Generals and Admirals, on Robert Gates -- their godfather, on his equally hawkish Secretary of State, and on his own unheroic self.

One last point. A serious liability of this administration's foreign policy is its utter disregard for the thinking and concerns of those in the region with whom they are dealing. Moreover, we compound the mistake by routinely underestimating their intelligence and will. The latest demonstration of this obtuseness is the grave error in assuming that we could force down the throat of the Pakistani leadership our unilateral expansion of attacks in North Waziristan and adjacent districts. This in direct contravention of existing accords as to the grids restricting such air strikes and as to requisite consultation, as Gareth Porter has reported.

We are learning the hard way -- once again -- that you don't mess with someone like General Kayani. Rather than his telling a fawning journalist how tough he is, Kayani acted and acted decisively. 150 fuel trucks ablaze punctuated an offer we could not refuse, i.e. return to the status quo ante or we tighten our choke-hold on your vital supply route. The supra-text, too, was unmistakeable -- and, by the way, keep in mind that we have far more at stake here than you do and we intend to shape the outcome. So long as David Petraeus is allowed to call the shots with his legend on the line, and other senior administration officials are off on their own ego trips, these costly miscalculations will recur. That is true whether it's Jones, Donilon or whoever at the NSA desk.