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More Drama Would Help Obama

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
February 28, 2010
The Daily Beast


There hasn't been a time quite like this for over 50 years, since the Vietnam War. Battle royals over foreign and national-security policy have pockmarked every administration since Lyndon Johnson's, each one heightened by personality conflicts. For a year now, however, relative peace has reigned within the Obama administration on these matters. The White House hasn't been trashing or mutilating the secretary of State through press leaks or vice versa. The secretaries of State and Defense haven't had to preside over the usual, weekly departmental brawls. What has produced this Washington miracle? And has peace within the U.S. government led to better prospects for peace abroad, or worsened them?

The George H.W. Bush administration wins second place for internal foreign-policy peace-an impressive feat, since it came at a time when there was plenty to argue about: an Iraq war and a collapsing Soviet Union. President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft agreed on policy and had very compatible personalities. The outlier was Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who was more hawkish on Iraq and felt his administration buddies were unwisely propping up Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Third place on internal policy peace goes to the second Clinton administration, which didn't face major problems abroad and didn't see much internal strife either.

By contrast, the battles during the Johnson administration-almost all over Vietnam-were legendary. Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford fought to set limits on American involvement in the war against Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow. The Carter administration was dominated by volleys between the National Security Council led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and the State Department under Cyrus Vance. Under George W. Bush, there was serious bloodletting between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, with Powell increasingly frozen out over Iraq War policy. Under Ronald Reagan, there was internal warfare over Soviet-American relations, and plenty of battles between Defense chief Caspar Weinberger and the State Department standard-bearer, George Shultz.

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