The first Director of Policy Planning at the State Department was George Kennan. The 25th will be National Intelligence Council Vice Chairman David Gordon. The formal announcement is likely to be made in the next two weeks.
David Gordon is an outstanding choice for this key position in America’ foreign policy establishment. Gordon is polymathic and knows that there is an enormous gap between yesterday’s threats and tomorrow’s. He worries about the declining water table in China. He thinks about resource wars and about the proliferation of “half-states”, or “failing but not quite totally failed” states. He has great facility with classic military and geostrategic thinking — but he’s been trying to work through the many dark nightmares outlined by people like Robert Wright, Robert Kaplan, and Bill Joy for some time.
A few years ago, I spent a great weekend with Dave Gordon and about 20 other top tier national security thinkers at a meeting organized by Al Gore National Security Advisor Leon Fuerth at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Pocantico retreat. We were all there to hammer through a futurist/policy planning framework that Fuerth has been developing for some time titled “Forward Engagement.” Frankly, Fuerth’s views deserve far greater discussion than they have thus far received (and if Fuerth reads this, I should get signed back up with his efforts).
Gordon was the perfect partner for this discussion on network effects and “forward engagement” to confront complex future policy challenges and was working then on his Global Trends 2015 report — and gave a brilliant “chat” about China, its development and what hard choices China’s rise meant for the rest of the world. The meeting was off-the-record but suffice it to say that virtually none of Dave Gordon’s roster of concerns matched those in normal, smart wonk society. He was thinking about global competition on a different level, far beyond the simple, binary and immediate. I remember clearly, for instance, the two of us discussing China’s deep political and economic involvement in Latin America and Africa, something that was not ‘then’ on the radar of most other policymakers or even China watchers.
I had originally recommended that the current “Acting Director” at Policy Planning, Matthew Waxman, be retained to provide a 21st century take on how American foreign policy and national security efforts could be reorganized — perhaps via some vehicle like a modernized version of Eisenhower’s brilliant Solarium exercise. Waxman is a younger version of David Gordon, and the two should make an outstanding team for the period of time they work together. (Recently, I spoke at a forum of well-heeled legal types in New York and met a dean or two of some prominent law schools and understand that a bidding war may be in play to lure Waxman to a teaching position). Whether Waxman stays or goes, it would be wise for the high priests in America’s foreign policy establishment to keep someone of Waxman’s talents and moral clarity “in the network” — and working with Gordon.
Why is it only in the twilight of this administration that we are seeing highly sensible appointments — and a new commitment to healthy “deal-making”? It is regrettable that someone of Gordon’s intellectual capacity and stature now has just a year and half to try and do something constructive in his new role. The reality is that America’s place in the world seems to be slipping — perhaps from a globally hegemonic, ordering role to something like another better-than-average great power — and most of George W. Bush’s political capital has been spent, often on low-return battles like the recent Wolfowitz struggle.
On the bright side, Bill Clinton at the end of his presidency gave himself about 45 days flat to solve definitively the Palestinian-Israeli problem and to normalize relations with North Korea. Not enough time. But the Bush administration has 19 months to work vigorously to turn this dismal mess around.
The constructive players in the administration, at this point, include people like Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten (he has made HUGE difference in general change of course of this administration away from Cheneyesque pugnaciousness), Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary John Negroponte (yes — for all the critics who have a problem with Negroponte, you need to take another look — he is winning bureaucratic battles for Condi now against Cheney’s team), Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns (whose success at ‘lots’ of new international deal-making that was preempted in the last few years make him a great potential successor to Bob Barker on The Price is Right), Legal Adviser John Bellinger, and now David Gordon succeeding Stanford’s Stephen Krasner in George Kennan’s famous job.
Others on the side of light include Secretary of Defense Bob Gates who is strongly backing the Diplomatic Team (and by reports I’ve received is in the clear lead — though not demanding credit — in laying out a new strategic road map for American interests in the Middle East). Gordon England, Deputy Secretary of Defense, is running DoD far more competently than Paul Wolfowitz did. Mike McConnell at the Directorate of National Intelligence and Michael Hayden have completely turned around a convulsing, dysfunctional intelligence establishment that was being ravaged and distorted by Rumsfeld and Stephen Cambone into something far more ordered and constructively supportive of the current foreign policy and national security missions.
Make no mistake about my enthusiasm for the rising A Team here. I am supportive of them — but I oppose what this administration did in Iraq and think that American power and prestige in the world have suffered because of a self-inflicted, disastrous mistake that has shaken global trust in American leadership and purpose. The adoption of a so-called “war paradigm” by the administration after 9-11 showed that our government doesn’t have trust and faith in our own sacred norms as a democracy during times of stress.
Frankly, it’s only during stress that the true character of a nation or political system become evident. Constitutional protections, civil liberties, transparent government and the like never matter when its only convenient — but when there is a challenge to them.
There is still time to get some of America’s foreign policy and national security house back in order. A team is assembling that can — if driven and inspired by what is best for the nation rather than cynical political reasons — make some progress.
Many believe that the Policy Planning perch at State has slipped in significance over the years, but in my view this perceived slippage had more to do with the massive increase in complexity of global challenges and threats and the failure thus far of any administration — Democrat or Republican — to compellingly reorganize American and global structures and resources to deal with this complexity. But the position, in my view, can be extremely important.
Other policy planning directors other than Kennan include a roster of some of America’s most distinguished national security thinkers. These include Paul Nitze, Walt Rostow, Winston Lord, Anthony Lake, Stephen Bosworth, Peter Rodman, Richard Solomon, Dennis Ross, James Steinberg, Morton Halperin, Richard Haass, Mitchell Reiss — and even Paul Wolfowitz should make this list of notables.
I think David Gordon is one of a small handful of people who can bring wisdom, excellence and policy entrepreneurship to the Policy Planning activities at the State Department. He will be surrounded by increasingly depressed people who know that the chance to “do great things” during this administration is becoming increasingly constrained by the realities that face every President near the end of his tenure.
Gordon is a fun guy — and a funny guy, but he’s also serious and should ignore the naysayers. That said, he can’t win in this environment by being “the fun guy” too much. He needs to pick the one or two policy arenas in which he wants to make a profound difference — and tenaciously fight for them.
There are a lot of new good people — working together finally — in this administration. But Vice President Cheney, and his national security spearcarriers — David Addington, John Hannah, and David Wurmser — will be out there to sabotage and oppose him at every turn. These rivals can’t be seduced to support David Gordon’s logic. They need to be out run, embarrassed, exhausted, pushed out of the room, or crushed.
That’s how one wins against Cheney’s followers. David Gordon’s appointment is a sign that smart realists are ascendant.
— Steve Clemons