Obama shifts from consensus to instincts on key calls
The Obama administration’s top national security officials were gathered around the polished wooden table of the White House Situation Room to hear Army Gen. David H. Petraeus argue for a slow drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The military needed time, he said, to secure the eastern part of the country as it had done in the south.
President Obama quickly made clear his disagreement. More important, he said, was the administration’s goal of shifting responsibility for the country’s security to the Afghan government, which would let him bring home troops.
As a senior administration official put it: “He asked everyone, if we’re serious about transition, then when? When are we going to do it?
“Everybody came out of that meeting knowing the president wanted to go this direction,” said the official who described the scene, “even though it wasn’t the pace that Gen. Petraeus was recommending.”
A week later, last Wednesday, Obama announced plans to withdraw the 33,000 “surge” troops he sent to Afghanistan.
To some who had attended the meeting, the encounter — and the president’s willingness to overrule key advisors — brought to mind another meeting four and a half months earlier.
On that occasion, Obama and his top advisors were discussing the rapidly unfolding events in Egypt. Most top administration officials had been advising the president against calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
But as the discussion went along, the television monitors in the Situation Room showed an angry crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yelling, “Leave! Leave! Leave!” in response to Mubarak’s televised speech refusing to resign.
Obama watched, and then told his aides, “Look, guys, this is not going to go back into the box.” The president said he would call Mubarak and tell him to step down, and he would deliver a public statement calling for a transition to begin immediately.
The decision took aides by surprise. In retrospect, it seemed a sign of things to come.
In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, his top aides had grown accustomed to a process in which Obama drew out and explored the views of his full team and searched for a consensus — decision by ballot, some called it.
Increasingly, however, that process has changed, according to a wide group of Obama’s personal friends, informal advisors and top aides interviewed during the spring. In recent months, they say, the president has been relying more heavily on his own instincts and feeling less impelled to seek accord among advisors.
The change, which came into view with the Egypt decision in February, was vividly on display in the meetings that led to the decision to send a team of Navy SEALs to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
The success of the Bin Laden raid reinforced Obama’s security in his own judgments, aides said.
“I think he reached a point where he had to trust his instincts, and there was nothing left to inform his decision except to do that,” said one advisor who is intimately familiar with the president’s thinking on foreign policy matters and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“And he saw that trust borne out in what happened. … To make that risky a judgment based not just on your instincts but on your experience as commander in chief, and have it succeed, does something important psychologically that’s hard to quantify.”
When judging Obama’s decision-making style, an obvious baseline for comparison is his Afghanistan war policy review in fall 2009. It took five months, befitting his personal craving for information, before he decided on an increase of 33,000 troops.
At the end of the review, Obama laid out his decision for his team in writing. If they could accept it, he told them, he wanted their support in public.
Much has changed in the interim.
Over the winter, Obama told advisors he wanted to move away from minutiae and focus on “the big things.” The choice of former business executive William Daley as his chief of staff was aimed at streamlining operations and cutting down on meeting time.
“Everyone in the administration is dealing with consequential things,” said David Axelrod, the president’s longtime friend and political advisor, “and they all want to engage the president on them.”
Obama was also learning how to renew himself, said Valerie Jarrett, a family friend of many years and a senior White House advisor. Being in the “bubble” of the presidency has sometimes sapped his energy. But personal interactions outside the White House — delivering the Bin Laden news personally to Sept. 11 survivors in May, drinking a Guinness in an Irish pub later that month — have the opposite effect.
“That connection fuels him,” Jarrett said.
His scheduler now knows to expect directives for travel, especially when there is disaster somewhere in the U.S. Figure out the earliest he can go without disrupting recovery, he tells his staff, and then “get me there.”
By the time of the Afghanistan troop decision this month, Obama had a new template. He didn’t want a battery of meetings in the style of the 2009 review, with all the “leaks and noise,” as one aide characterized it. He said that after two years of intensive written reports, discussion and weekly updates from Petraeus and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, “I am up to speed on what’s going on in Afghanistan.”
Throughout the year, Obama had built his deliberations into other meetings, starting in January with his regular talks with national security advisor Tom Donilon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. By June, the calendar was filled with meetings on the subject, including one with the National Security Council staff on June 9, in which he made one idea clear.
“He said we have to send a clear signal that we’re serious about transition,” one senior administration official said, recalling the president’s words. He said Obama added, “If we’re going to transition, we’re going to have to have reductions.”
That would become the key point of the June 15 meeting, when Gates, Clinton and the other principal advisors would gather around the polished wooden table to hear the Petraeus presentation. The general’s preferred option: Pull as few as 3,000 troops out this year and fully remove the surge troops only by the end of 2012.
The military wanted more time for U.S. troops to “partner” with Afghan security forces as they rose to the task of securing the country themselves. Military officials raised concerns that the progress to date could backslide, according to one official familiar with their point of view, but they never questioned the importance of transition.
Still, Obama kept returning to the priorities the group had laid out together in 2009. They set goals of defeating Al Qaeda, stopping the Taliban’s momentum, clearing out safe havens for terrorists and training Afghan forces. The job, in his view, is not to eradicate the Taliban and “secure the entire country of Afghanistan,” said another official familiar with the talks.
The remaining work can be done while withdrawing 33,000 troops by next summer, Obama said. When he explained that idea on June 21 to top appointees, he asked their opinions. All said they could support the plan, although Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stipulated that it was against their recommendation.
This time, Obama did not ask for any promises about what they would say in public. He announced his decision the next day.
David S. Cloud in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.