Ex-Obama adviser: Why Biden must fire his national security adviser for Afghanistan failure

·4 min read

President Joe Biden needs to shake up his national security team.

The disaster that unfolded in Afghanistan is illustrative of other major issues at the White House. The people, plans and processes the president has put in place to keep America safe are not working.

Those he has chosen for key positions have repeatedly failed to challenge their own assumptions. It sadly led to the most unnecessarily embarrassing day in the history of the National Security Council.

The national security adviser has two jobs. As the name suggests, they are the last and ideally closest counselor to the president in the Situation Room.

Their second duty is to translate the commander in chief’s decisions and direction into practical policies. Sometimes that requires speaking truth to power. On all of these scores, the current occupant of the office appears to have failed.

I served with Jake Sullivan in the Obama administration. He is extraordinarily bright and because of that, advanced at record speed as a staffer to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and later Vice President Joe Biden.

While he knows all the theories and academic arguments in foreign policy, his overseas experience is less robust. It can lead to the disconnect between ideas and implementation.

Yes, Biden wanted out of Afghanistan. It was on Sullivan to figure out how to achieve the president’s goal while ensuring we avoided potential pitfalls and problems. That’s clearly not what happened.

Stranded Afghans return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on Aug. 16, 2021.
Stranded Afghans return to Afghanistan at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman on Aug. 16, 2021.

As we’ve all seen in recent days, the boss’ mind was made up. But, in a case like this, you absolutely have to find a way to manage up and explain the real risks to pursuing the preferred presidential path. Instead of just going along, the national security adviser needs to lay out safer options that could accomplish the same stated goals.

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It's not just on the decision to recklessly retreat from Afghanistan. The Biden administration has been stronger on slogans than substance when it comes to foreign policy. They promised America is back, but have disengaged in a surprising number of areas, from Cuba to Israel.

Biden owns a string of failures

The past eight months have seen far too little attention paid to growing global threats. The White House has overemphasized the superficial and failed to make the necessary systematic changes after four destructive years of President Donald Trump.

Part of the problem has to do with personnel decisions. The White House has opted to pack political types into the most influential positions.

Indeed, there is only one career diplomat in a senior position on the National Security Council, the senior director for Africa. This is far fewer than under President Barack Obama. It means Sullivan and Biden are not getting advice from those with the most recent and relevant experience.

Political allies rewarded with jobs

Things do not get much better at the State Department, where for the first time in a quarter century, a current career diplomat is not in one of the top three jobs.

We can see the administration’s predilection for putting political appointees in national security positions in their choice of ambassadors. Biden has too often treated too many posts as political party favors, naming the well-to-do or the well-connected to places like Turkey, where diplomatic experience is normally a prerequisite.

Those appointments across the national security structure are a reflection of the arrogance that has accompanied the arrival of this team. They came in largely ignoring the worries and warnings of institutional experts on several major international issues.

First, we saw the border and refugee policies run into avoidable ditches. The president rushed to change policies without adequately consulting the experts working in those areas.

The Editorial Board: Biden's Afghanistan horror: A well-intentioned miscalculation with disastrous, predictable results

In both cases, the administration had to quickly backtrack. But, not before losing valuable time and credibility. Serious questions were also raised about their handling of relations with places like Saudi Arabia and Russia, where Biden has promised principled change. Then came Afghanistan.

Yes, we were always going to pull out. It was a question of how and when. Both of those were decisions that Sullivan had to use his role to carefully guide.

Unfortunately, it seems he allowed the president’s push for an end to our involvement in the country ahead of Sept. 11 to drive the American timeline. That was a catastrophic error. Our people were unprepared. We failed to get them out of harm's way. The Afghan government and military clearly were not ready, either.

President Biden needs to fire his national security adviser and several other senior leaders who oversaw the botched execution of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has to restructure how and with whom he is making major foreign policy decisions, allowing for more input from career experts.

There should be absolutely no more donors appointed to represent us abroad. The stakes are just too high. Finally, there is an urgency to repairing the extensive damage done to our reputation and credibility on the world stage.

That’s going to require the president spending a lot more time than he has focused on global crises and listening to those who did not work on his campaign.

Brett Bruen was director of global engagement in the Obama White House. He is now president of Global Situation Room, a public relations firm, and adjunct professor of crisis communications at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter: @BrettBruen

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Afghanistan disaster: Why Biden's foreign policy team failed America

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