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Obama's team of rivals: An asset turned liability?

When President Obama named Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state soon after winning the election, Washington pundits and press cheered the incoming president for his willingness to put together a "team of rivals." Doris Kearns Goodwin, the author of the famous book of the same name about Abraham Lincoln's staff, seemed to become the management thinker of the moment, quoted widely about the developing cabinet and its odd coupling.

But what was once talked about as an asset is in danger of becoming a liability. Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars chronicles the infighting that has occurred between the White House and the Pentagon over Afghanistan, as a president frustrated by a war he wants to find a way of ending confronts military commanders determined to escalate and continue it.

Without having read the book--it will be released Sept. 27--it is hard to judge whether the tensions and disagreements Woodward lays out are particularly virulent or simply par for the course for any high-stakes leadership team. After all, there is no greater pressure-cooker than the U.S. executive branch in the midst of two wars, a terrible economic recession and a political landscape more toxic than anything seen in decades. If there were no dust-ups or disagreements, we'd need to check everybody's pulse.

Despite some personal attacks--national security adviser Jim Jones calls Obama's aides "the Mafia" and "the Politboro," and Petraeus calls David Axelrod "a complete spin doctor"--much of the internal debate appears to be substantive in nature, writes Washington Post associate editor Steve Luxenberg, who has read the book and wrote the Post's news story on the topic. "I came away with the impression that the strategy sessions on the Afghanistan war ... were serious discussions about difficult issues," he wrote in a Q&A with Post readers, adding "I hope no one read my news story as an account of a dysfunctional process. That's not my sense of [it]."

Dysfunctional or not, the tensions don't appear to be helping Obama, either. While some will see him as decisive, resolute, and willing to stand up to his generals--all marks of a good leader--there are plenty who are already holding up Woodward's book as proof that Obama is soft on terrorism and is leading an administration mired in infighting. Getting down in the mud and battling out your differences works, but when the dirty laundry gets aired publicly, the benefits of the fight might get lost in the glare.

Plus, it is one thing to have a group of people with differing viewpoints debate an issue in order to come to a more informed solution. It is another thing entirely for them to remain so opposed that the leader must write out his own strategy that goes so far as to even include what one side may not do. Obama's six-page "terms sheet," which is printed as an appendix in Woodward's book, details not only what he hopes the Afghanistan strategy should achieve, but what the military should not do, to keep it from trying to expand its mission.

That implies that in this case, at least, the goals of the administration's various members may be so far apart that the downsides of their differences have the potential to override their benefits. A team of rivals only works if everyone in the end plays for the same team, rather than trying to put the goals of a few people--or of their own organization--first.

By Jena McGregor

 |  September 23, 2010; 12:37 AM ET |  Category:  Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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It make sense to set limits, and it damn well makes a lot of sense to tell people what they shouldn't do.

Posted by: Nymous | September 24, 2010 6:33 AM

You're getting awfully close here to arguing that the problem is public disclosure of all this debate, which makes the problem Bob Woodward, rather than anything about the process. After the fact accounts of all kinds of wartime decision making, ranging from FDR in World War II to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, display similar levels of conflict among advisers--smart experienced people with strong opinions and big egos are going to disagree vehemently on issues where there's a lot at stake, and hashing out these disagreements can be noisy. It doesn't always look pretty, if what you care about are looks, but the answer to the problem of airing dirty laundry in public is not to air it, which means Woodward writing these kinds of books in real time is not a good idea.

Posted by: fossettj | September 23, 2010 3:52 PM

Jena, first and foremost I think we should read the book before we go down the rabbit's hole.

Second, I have to disagree with your implied idea that the US strategy in Afghanistan is operating off of a 6 page document. Come on. To be honest we have to acknowledge that the current strategy had more fathers than one man.

Ultimately though I believe this is why President Obama was elected: to make the tough decisions. This was his toughest. Is the Afghanistan war winnable? Could there be a day where "victory" can be declared? I would say that President Obama and a sizable (majority?) portion of the US populace contend it is a war that can not be "won."

For those who disagree and contend that the Afghanistan war can be won: please explain how.

Posted by: CrabHands | September 23, 2010 1:22 PM

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