What Obama Is Up Against in His Own Branch of Government
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The first anniversary of Barack Obama's historic election finds many of his supporters already grousing. Fair enough: Obama has been more vigorous in some areas than others. But one essential question goes unasked: How much can any president accomplish against the wishes of recalcitrant power centers within his own government?
We Americans harbor a quaint belief that a new president takes charge of a government that eagerly awaits his next command. Like an orchestra conductor or perhaps a football coach, he can inspire or bludgeon and get what he wants. But that's not how things work at the top, especially where "national security" is concerned. The Pentagon and CIA are powerful and independent fiefdoms characterized by entrenched agendas and constant intrigue. They are full of lifers, who see an elected president largely as an annoyance, and have ways of dealing with those who won't come to heel.
Compound that with the Bush-Cheney administration's aggressive seeding of its staunch loyalists throughout the bureaucracy, and you have a pretty tough situation. Obama, then, has to contend not only with the big donors and corporate lobbies. His biggest problem resides right inside his "team."
The internal battles between American presidents and their national security establishments are not much reported. But if it is an invisible game; it is also a devious and even deadly one. Our civilian leaders end up mirroring the chronically nervous chiefs of state of the fragile democracies to our south.
Those who do not kowtow to the spies and generals have had a bumpy ride. FDR and Truman both faced insubordination. Dwight Eisenhower, who had served as chief of staff of the US Army, left the White House warning darkly about the "military industrial complex." (He of all presidents had reasons to know.) John Kennedy was repeatedly countermanded and double-crossed by his own supposed subordinates. The Joint Chiefs baited him; Allen Dulles despised him (more so after JFK fired him over the Bay of Pigs fiasco), and Henry Cabot Lodge, his ambassador to South Vietnam, deliberately undermined Kennedy's agenda. Kennedy called the trigger-happy generals "mad" and spoke angrily to aides of "scattering the CIA to the wind." The evidence is growing that he suffered the consequences.
In the 1950s, the late Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, a high-ranking Pentagon official, was assigned by CIA Director Allen Dulles to help place Dulles's officers under military cover throughout the federal government. As a result, Dulles not only knew what was happening before the president did, but had essentially infiltrated every corner of the president's domain. One Nixon-era Republican Party official told me that in the early 1970s, there were intelligence officers everywhere, including the White House. Nixon was unaware of the true background of many of his trusted aides, particularly those who helped drive him from office. Remember Alexander Butterfield, the so-called "military liaison," who told Congress about the White House taping system? Years later, Butterfield admitted to CIA connections.
In December 1971, Nixon learned of a military spy ring, the so-called Moorer-Radford operation, that was piping White House documents back to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Chiefs were wary of secret negotiations the president and Henry Kissinger were conducting with America's enemies, including North Vietnam, China and the USSR, and decided to keep tabs on this intrusion upon their domain. Jimmy Carter came into office as revelations of CIA abuses made headlines. He tried to dismantle the agency's dirty tricks office, but wound up instead a victim of it - and a one-term president.
Those who avoided problems - Johnson, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Jr. - were chief executives that made no problems for the Pentagon and intelligence chiefs. All embraced military and covert operations, expanded wars or launched their own. The agile Bill Clinton was a special case - no babe in the woods, he focused on domestic gains and pretty much steered clear of the hornets' nest.