Is Libya Mess the Work of NSC Chief Tom Donilon?
Insiders tell PJM that the unfocused, poorly led campaign sounds like the Donilon they know.
March 25, 2011 - 12:00 am
President Obama’s war in Libya is angering the left and right, of both parties. His muddled policy pronouncements over Libya are sowing discord within NATO. His international coalition is collapsing, with Germany now withdrawing its forces from the military operation. Congress is infuriated over the failure of notification under the War Powers Act. Rep. Dennis Kucinich says Obama’s actions constitute an “impeachable offense.”
There is the near universal confusion about what the American military’s mission in Libya is. Who is calling the shots on deploying military assets? What is the end game?
Finally, there is astonishment that the president of the United States departed for a routine overseas trip on the eve of war.
At the center of an increasingly incoherent policy is the president’s national security advisor, Thomas E. Donilon, and Washington insiders are privately pointing a finger at him.
Recall that Donilon’s immediate predecessor, Gen. Jim Jones, privately told Bob Woodward that Donilon was too inexperienced to be the head of the White House’s National Security Council. In his book Obama’s Wars, Woodward writes that Jones felt Donilon’s lack of overseas experience was a major liability: “You have no credibility with the military,” Jones told Donilon.
Woodward cites this further damaging assessment of Donilon by General Jones:
You frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with.
Woodward also discusses a moment in which Donilon almost caused Defense Secretary Robert Gates to storm out of White House meeting:
Donilon’s sound-offs and strong spur-of-the-moment opinions, especially about one general, had offended him so much at an Oval Office meeting that he (Gates) nearly walked out.
Current Defense Secretary Robert Gates further told Woodward that Donilon would be a “complete disaster” as the president’s national security advisor. After Donilon was appointed to the post, Gates publicy stepped back from his Woodward comments, but the damage was done.
Tom Donilon’s other major liability is his long-time reputation as a harsh political operative. He learned the art of sharp elbowed politics as a 23-year-old assistant to Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan. Jordan dispatched him to the 1980 Democratic National Convention to do President Carter’s dirty work. He successfully shot down Senator Ted Kennedy’s challenge to the president.
But Donilon may be best-known as the chief lobbyist for government-backed mortgage giant Fannie Mae — just before it imploded. For six years he was a fierce fighter at Fannie Mae, fending off reform efforts by Republicans to rein in the federal agency. He also was deceptive about the agency’s troubles. According to ABC News, he painted a rosy picture of the agency while it was going south:
Donilon is described as someone who lobbied for and helped paint a rosy picture of Fannie Mae’s financial health to the company’s board. He did so at a time when Fannie Mae faced accusations that it was misstating its earnings from 1998 to 2004.
A 2006 federal investigation caught Donilon as part of a group of Fannie Mae executives who exchanged “scripts” in advance of meetings of the agency’s independent compensation committee. When Fannie Mae’s independent regulator — the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight — sought to investigate Fannie Mae, Donilon aggressively attacked it. David Frum wrote: “Donilon is the ultimate Democratic Party politico.”
The well-connected Donilon initially served as Obama’s transition chief at the State Department, and hoped to land a top job there. His controversial role at Fannie Mae convinced Obama that Donilon would never receive Senate confirmation, so he landed at the NSC.
A number of State Department officials have told PJM that when they see what looks like seat-of-the pants management, it looks like Donilon’s work: “This is pure Tom Donilon,” a USAID official told told PJM. “He makes it up as he goes along.” The official spoke to PJM on the condition of anonymity.
On the conservative side of the fence, the analysis about Donilon isn’t much better. Andy McCarthy of the National Review Institute told PJM the administration’s Libyan operation “looks like what you would expect it would look like if they didn’t have a plan going in and they didn’t have an objective.”
As the Libya adventure goes south, Washington seems to be entering the fingerpointing stage. Even now, so early in the deployment, many issues seem to point to strategic military and diplomatic blunders, and much of them fall onto Tom Donilon’s desk.
For example, few are clear even now whether the U.S. military mission is to protect Libyan civilians or to topple the regime of Col. Muammar Gaddafi. The NATO alliance itself appears to be fracturing. From the NATO command in Brussels there is reported criticism of the “hastily improvised nature of the military coalition.” The German military now has entirely pulled out its military forces from the Libyan coalition. The Brits and Americans are in a public brawl as to whether or not Gaddafi should be assassinated. Turkey has tried to exercise a veto about NATO leadership.
And there is near universal uncertainty about whether the continuing military action will be directed by the U.S., NATO, or a new unspecified international coalition. ”The NSC is kind of the hub that’s the intersection between intelligence, national security and the military,” McCarthy says. “It seems to be a failing of arriving at a coherent strategy from all those different components of government.” This is all Donilon’s portfolio.
And how could Donilon permit President Obama to take a whirlwind tour of Latin America as a major wartime mission was getting underway? The State Department source called it “purely astonishing.”
There also is the rupture with Congress and liberal Democrats. Donilon, a consummate political operative, should have foreseen the need to formally notify Congress under the War Powers Act, which requires formal notification of Congress when military hostilities begin. And the White House did not reach out with kid gloves to the party’s left wing, who are enraged by the use of military force in a third Muslim country.
Certainly there is enough blame to go around, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Secretary Gates and President Obama. But the nexus of the entire operation is Thomas Donilon, and fingers seem to be pointing at him as the possible fall guy.
In addition to President Obama, Donlion enjoys the confidence of Vice President Joe Biden: Donilon served as a close confidant to Biden in the late 80s. When Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Donilon was a key player in the destruction of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. He was also part of a close-knit group of advisors behind Biden’s presidential bid in 2007. Brother Mike Donilon currently serves as counselor to the vice president, and wife Cathy Russell is Jill Biden’s chief of staff. Few were willing to talk publicly about Donilon. Typical was this statement from a former political colleague:
Everybody I know who knows Tom Donilon wouldn’t say that he his unqualified — even if they believe he is. This is mostly due to the fact they are all former campaign colleagues, or they want to curry favor with him.