A New Voice at the Table
President Trump today named Robert O’Brien, his envoy for hostage affairs, to replace Bombin’ John Bolton as his fourth national security advisor. Given O’Brien’s status as a relative unknown figure in the national security world, he comes in with the rare opportunity to shape his own reputation, although there are certain facts we can gather from the last few decades.
By all accounts, O’Brien is a close and favored ally of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has become something of a “Trump whisperer” in terms of American foreign policy. Two and a half years into the Trump administration, Pompeo remains the sole foreign-policy advisor to have served in the administration since its beginning—first as CIA director, then as secretary of state.
Pompeo has managed to thread a needle that others have not within the nat-sec advisory apparatus, as he’s known to be a hard-liner on most policy issues but also closely aligns himself with Trumpian non-interventionism. According to various reports from inside the West Wing over the past two years, Pompeo has by far the best feel for Trump’s instincts and thus knows how to speak on his behalf — an important quality for the guy whose job is to, well, speak on the president’s behalf.
But that skill has also been a way of gaining the president’s trust, which one hopes would not come easily. And that trust— in addition to a reported friendship with Jared Kushner—has seemingly led to the appointment of Bob O’Brien to advise the president during one of the most volatile times in modern U.S. history. Just days after Trump fired Bolton, a series of attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure roiled global markets and raised new fears of a confrontation with Iran. Nuclear talks with North Korea have stalled. A damaging trade war with China shows no sign of ending.
It’s safe to say there is no shortage of work to be done.
The new NSA possesses a much lower profile than his three predecessors. Trump’s first NSA, Michael Flynn, rose to prominence as an idiosyncratic critic of the U.S. intelligence community over the course of a storied military career. Well, before he became a shill for the Islamofascist regime in Turkey. The second, H.R. McMaster, was considered one of the U.S. Army’s premier intellects, although that big brain of his never could manage to define our goal in Afghanistan. The third, Bolton, entered the White House with the distinction of Neocon of the Decade, which Trump found very useful and entertaining for Oval Office debates, but Bolton’s hawkish views would ultimately cause an irrevocable split.
O’Brien, on the other hand, has a bit of a different resume for the job, not that it should be a dealbreaker. God knows we’ve had lots of disastrous “experts” over the years. Until now, O’Brien was best known for being sent to Sweden to fight for the release of rapper A$AP Rocky, whose arrest for fighting in the street was apparently of utmost national security importance. That, or Trump was doing a favor for Kim Kardashian. I guess we’ll never know which. Trump praised his work helping free A$AP, but there is no evidence O’Brien did any substantive work freeing the rapper, who was released following a decision by Sweden’s independent judicial system. A$AP was eventually convicted on the assault charges and sentenced to time served, which is typical for Sweden.
O’Brien was responsible for more than rappers, though, and performed admirably in his hostage negotiation role, which isn’t exactly a low-stress environment. He earned a reputation as an excellent worker who gets results. He’s also quick to recognize the president’s results, which, let’s face it, is a good way of getting into the good graces of the Donald. President Trump tweeted this quote from O’Brien back in April:
But while the Fake News would have you believe that O’Brien is just a brown-nose, PDT wouldn’t be the first major politician he has served. A successful trial lawyer in Los Angeles, he served in several minor roles in the George Dubya Bush administration, including as an alternate U.S. representative to the U.N. General Assembly in 2005. He helped lead the State Department Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan, which promoted rule of law efforts in that country. In 2011, he took a job advising Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He later served as a foreign-policy advisor to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ill-fated presidential run in 2016.
Unless there was a serious unreported rift, O’Brien’s work as an advisor for the Romney campaign can be seen as hawkishness toward Russia. If you’ll recall, Romney named Russia as our chief geopolitical threat during the 2012 campaign, a declaration for which he was roundly mocked by the mainstream media. That is, until Russia became a weapon with which to attack Trump. Then, suddenly Romney became a genius.
Hawkishness against Russia is not a flaw in and of itself, as I can assure you that Putin’s advisors are extremely hawkish toward the U.S. Trump himself is hawkish toward Russia, as his record of sanctions is more robust than any president since Reagan. But what Trump does understand—and I sincerely hope O’Brien understands as well—is that Russia can be dealt with peacefully. This lesson should have been made clear for everyone when Reagan brought down the USSR without firing a shot. Alas, war is big money and big money can buy a lot of hawks.
There is much to be seen with Mr. O’Brien, as this level of the national security apparatus is new ground for him. And I would actually argue that’s an asset.
People who are appointed NSA tend to be veterans of the Swamp; people who have sought power their entire careers and often seek to leave their fingerprints where they don’t necessarily belong. By not seeking to advance his own agenda, O’Brien may be able to more effectively mediate between the larger egos of Pompeo and his principal rival for influence, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. National security advisors tend to have power bases that come with certain expectations. Gen. McMaster, for instance, was expected by the DC cocktail circuit to uphold the national security status quo at every turn. O’Brien doesn’t have that baggage, at least not at this point.
Unlike other senior roles in the government, including secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor does not require Senate confirmation, giving the president full authority to appoint whomever he likes to the position regardless of rank or experience. This gives PDT to the opportunity to put fresh eyes in the Oval Office without having to explain to a bunch of disingenuous senators why a non-swamper should be allowed into the Situation Room.
From what I can gather, O’Brien is a hawk much like Pompeo, but I’ve seen no indication of neoconservative tendencies. The closest I can find is his work for the Romney campaign, but even there I can find no outward desires for conflict, only robust uses of smart (economic) power.
Whatever book Mr. O’Brien chooses to write for himself, let us hope that he does so with integrity and without favor to power. His position is a critical one for our country and the People deserve no less.
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