Guy Fawkes visits the White House

By Harlan Ullman
A woman wears a Guy Fawkes mask during an OccupyAtlanta protest at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on October 7, 2011. The OccupyWallStreet movement has spread to many cities across the United States. UPI Photo/Erik S. Lesser
A woman wears a Guy Fawkes mask during an OccupyAtlanta protest at Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, on October 7, 2011. The OccupyWallStreet movement has spread to many cities across the United States. UPI Photo/Erik S. Lesser | License Photo

November 5th, of course, marks the day that Guy Fawkes plotted and failed to blow up Parliament in 1605. Metaphorically, many believe that the White House is in such disarray that, in essence, it has exploded as Fawkes would have liked. Others argue that President Barack Obama should implode his administration and bring in a new national security team.

Alas, the fundamental problem does not rest in Obama's national security team or his cabinet. The problem is embedded deeply in the White House. The buck rightly stops at the Oval Office.


Too many anecdotal reports swirl around Washington to be dismissed merely as gossip amongst the chattering classes. A senior White House official long engaged in national security moved to a very senior position in an important department. That official confided that after several weeks in office, the source of the problems plaguing that department was the White House and its micromanagement.


Not long ago, a senior official in the Department of Defense was summoned to the White House to discuss a continuing security crisis. Instead of talking strategy and options, the discussion focused on minutiae and literally sophomoric questions about details that lacked relevance. After reporting back to the Pentagon, this official was told that this is the way this White House operates.

Last, a four-star flag officer recently delivered a plain vanilla talk to a small group supposed to be off the record. Within a day, that officer received three separate phone calls from different White House staff bitterly complaining and chastising him for what he said; what he didn't say; and for some of the people present in the audience.

In any organization, from a mom and pop shop to the U.S. government, several organizational principles are essential for success or guarantees of failure. Who is in charge is among the most important. Take two examples.

Who is in charge of dealing with Ebola? The White House has appointed a political czar, Ron Klain. Mr. Klain worked for two vice presidents, Al Gore and Joe Biden. His political credentials are quite solid. However, his organizational, technical and management skills for dealing with a dangerous disease are well disguised. And how will he work with the local, state and federal agencies engaged in countering Ebola as well as the vast network of private hospitals and medical facilities?


The threat of the Islamic State is growing as it consolidates its holdings in Syria and Iraq and according to the press, thousands of potential jihadists are flocking to join the ranks of this terrorist group. Who is in charge? Is it the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, Commander Central Command (the responsible military regional command), retired Marine General John Allen recently appointed by the president as special envoy to the coalition fighting IS, the Director of the CIA, the National Security Advisor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or some other known or unknown party? No one knows.

The likely outcome of both situations is not promising. And calls for replacing members of the team, while understandable, will not solve the problem. When George W. Bush's team was named, it was an A++ group. Vice President Dick Cheney had been Secretary of Defense when General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Both helped win the first Gulf War.

Donald Rumsfeld had been Secretary of Defense before as well as White House Chief of Staff and had an impressive private sector record in pharmaceuticals. Before becoming Secretary of State, Powell had been National Security Advisor and Chairman. On paper, rarely was there a more formidable team. Yet, during Bush's watch, the nation was led into two disastrous wars appropriately described as "fiascoes."


Complicating corrective action is the impression that Mr. Obama is in over his head and is unable or unwilling to burst the protective bubble around him provided by his long-term friends and closest political advisors. Furthermore, the National Security Council staff has exploded from the 30 or 40 members during the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations to between 500-800, not including administrative personnel. This includes the vice president's national security staff as well as homeland security.

Worse, this staff is actively engaged in micromanagement at all levels. Cabinet secretaries are expected to execute policy, not make it. No wonder 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a mess.

The only, repeat, only way out of this muddle is for the president to take action. For that to happen, however, he must understand the root causes of his predicament. Otherwise a modern-day Guy Fawkes could seek to get the White House's attention.

_______________________________________________________________________ Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book, due out this fall is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces The Peace.


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