Obama a prisoner of groupthink

 

Of the many strange moments in the Bowe Bergdahl saga, the most worrisome was Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s statement about the prisoner exchange.

“The president feels very strongly about this. I feel very strongly about it,” Hagel told the BBC’s Katty Kay last week while traveling in Romania. “This was the right decision for the right reasons.”

They felt they were right even about rushing the swap with the Taliban before informing Congress. “It was our judgment, and it was unanimous, by the way,” Hagel said. “It was the secretary of defense, secretary of state, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, director of national intelligence, attorney general. We all came to the same conclusion.? … ”

And this is precisely the problem. President Obama felt “very strongly” that he had made the right decision — and nobody who worked for him was about to tell him otherwise. “There was not a dissent on moving forward with this plan,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told Time magazine.

I don’t doubt these accounts about Obama’s agreeable advisers. Such affirmations of Obama’s instincts are what has worried me about the way Obama has structured his administration in his second term: By surrounding himself with longtime loyalists in the White House and on his national-security team, he has left himself with advisers lacking either the stature or the confidence to tell him when he’s wrong.

Exactly a year before Hagel made his remarks, I wrote about the “incestuous arrangement” Obama was creating in his inner circle, replacing his first-term “team of rivals” by promoting friends and loyalists to top posts: Denis McDonough, John Brennan, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Jack Lew and many more. Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Biden were all Obama’s pals from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The danger with such an arrangement is you create a bubble around yourself, and your advisers become susceptible to groupthink.

In the Bergdahl case, the problem wasn’t the exchange itself. There are compelling moral and historical justifications for swapping prisoners at the end of a war, and the Republican efforts to turn the negotiations with the Taliban into another “scandal” are far-fetched. As The Post’s David Fahrenthold and Jaime Fuller have documented, many of Obama’s critics have opportunistically switched positions on Bergdahl.

The real damage was self-inflicted: choosing to highlight the exchange with a Rose Garden ceremony featuring Bergdahl’s eccentric father, and then allowing Rice, the national security adviser, to go on television and say Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction” even though administration officials had to know this was in dispute.

Even if Obama doubted the constitutionality of the law requiring him to give Congress 30 days’ notice before removing prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, would it really have been a huge security risk to place phone calls to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the intelligence committee chairmen, before he finalized the deal?

I’m told that Obama’s advisers didn’t check with Congress in part because they knew lawmakers would object. But now Obama is hearing objections from the public instead. A USA Today/Pew Research poll out Tuesday shows that a majority of Americans believe the United States had a responsibility to bring Bergdahl home. But by two to one, Americans think the president should inform Congress before making prisoner swaps, which helps explain why a plurality, 43 percent to 34 percent, say Obama was wrong to make the Bergdahl deal.

Senior administration officials I spoke to Tuesday said they weren’t expecting the swap to be as controversial as it is. But even in retrospect, they told me, they wouldn’t have done things differently (not even the Rose Garden event or the lack of a heads up to Congress), arguing that the exchange went smoothly and that Obama had shown leadership. A White House official apologized to Feinstein, calling it an oversight that she wasn’t consulted. That itself shows how little value the administration puts in the advice and consent of Congress — as if it’s a legal box to be checked, not a valuable source of a second opinion that could rescue the president from his bubble of loyalists.

More than a decade ago, a different administration’s groupthink got us into a war in Iraq, which distracted the military from the more important war in Afghanistan and unnecessarily prolonged that conflict. Now, as Obama finally withdraws the last troops from Afghanistan, he'll be a more effective president if he can also remove himself from the groupthink produced by his adoring acolytes.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • When journalists become the story

    In recent weeks, and in very different environments, journalists have found themselves in the unusual position of becoming the subject of news stories rather than the people telling them. First, my Washington Post colleague Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan J. Reilly were arrested in a Ferguson, Mo., McDonald’s while covering protests against police brutality. Soon after, we learned that James Foley, a freelance journalist, was murdered by his Islamic State captors, an act that communicated the lethal tactics of that organization in the ugliest possible terms.

  • Al Sharpton, the White House’s mouthpiece

    As he has grown weary of Washington, President Obama has shed parts of his presidency, like drying petals falling off a rose.

  • I demonstrated as an angry mob destroyed the U.S. embassy. I’m sorry.

    On Dec. 19, 1998, U.S. embassies across the Arab world felt the ire of residents outraged by U.S.-British airstrikes on Iraq. The most violent demonstrations occurred in Syria, where protesters stormed the U.S. and British embassies in Damascus. Protesters also destroyed the residence of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Ryan Crocker, who lodged vigorous objections with the Syrian government in response. I was among those protesters.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category