President Trump proudly unveiled a new national security adviser on Wednesday who looks the part: Robert C. O’Brien, the State Department’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. A tanned Californian, with a successful law career based in Los Angeles, O’Brien has spent time in mid-level State Department roles when not making his living in international arbitration. He is a comparatively unknown figure and so the question hangs in the air: is Trump’s new NSA a sober diplomat, ‘Bolton Lite‘, or something else?
O’Brien was not an immediate public contender for the job. But DC insider speculation proved fruitless. Purported favorites like belligerent ambassador Ric Grenell, realist Ret. Col. Douglas MacGregor, and attempted Nigerian sea pirate State Department Iran hand Brian Hook failed to make the finals. Instead, O’Brien emerged from a shortlist of five, beating out Pompeo adviser Major Gen. Ricky Waddell; Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the undersecretary of energy for nuclear security; Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a national security adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; and Fred Fleitz, a former CIA officer and henchman to Bolton and national security prevaricator Frank Gaffney.
As a low profile West Coaster, O’Brien initially appeared to be a bit of a cipher. Colleagues on both sides of the political divide all seem to testify to his decency and integrity. He served as a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney, Scott Walker, and Ted Cruz during their presidential campaigns and played pundit, but was not a household name even in the 202 area code.
Luckily, in 2016 O’Brien published While America Slept, a pocket-sized cri de coeur. Cribbing its title from John F. Kennedy’s While England Slept, a pre-Pearl Harbor account of the march to war in the 1930s, O’Brien’s collection of columns purports to be a road map to ‘Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis.’
Yet While America Slept is little more than warmed-over Reaganism. And that might actually be too generous. Saint Ronny, for all his hardline rhetoric, had both the audacity to dream of total nuclear disarmament and the realism to pull out of Beirut, avoiding America’s penchant for doubling down on failed military interventions. No, While America Slept is really warmed-over Romneyism: a tired incantation of American weakness and threats everywhere, whose only solution is…further fattening the Pentagon.
Like fellow bellicose Bushite David French, O’Brien was an Army Reserve Judge Advocate General. Neither man seems to have derived much wisdom or national humility from his service. Optimism about Afghanistan was defensible, barely, in 2008. By 2016, publishing an account of how much Afghan female lawyers enjoyed Santa Monica Pier ice cream, as O’Brien did, screams either arch self-parody or an epic appetite for delusion.
The Obama years, which saw Afghanistan escalation, Nato expansion, and a disastrous war of choice in Libya, are laughably labeled ‘isolationist’ by O’Brien. Buoyed by this hoary canard, While America Slept tosses out similar tripe to the pre-Trump airport non-fiction rack peruser: the ‘blame America first crowd’, our ‘hollow force’ and, of course, ‘the echoes of the 1930s.’ In 2016, the pre-eminent question is ‘What Would Churchill Do?’
On it goes. The decommissioning of aircraft carriers, our absurdly expensive naval white elephants, is ‘an “end-of-earth scenario.”’ A silly ‘global freedom alliance’ is proposed. Despite rote recitations of America’s moral leadership and a comparatively hefty segment devoted to Guantanamo Bay’s military tribunals, O’Brien can’t bring himself to once mention torture or ‘enhanced interrogation’ – the reason 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Muhammad still molders at Gitmo awaiting trial.
On China, at least, While America Slept has some merit. O’Brien notes the massive growth in Chinese naval capability and capacity and was ahead of the curve in writing about Chinese soft power in Africa as early as 2010. Trump did not choose a closeted panda hugger as his national security adviser.
A columnist’s hobby horses are always revealing and sometimes hilarious. In O’Brien’s case, the Falkland Islands (!) get trotted out for multiple at-bats, meriting far more paragraphs than cyberwarfare, nuclear weapons, or other things that, you know, matter.
O’Brien’s Romney boosterism is particularly funny today. The longest single piece in While America Slept is the case for drafting Mitt – always with the democratic-cum-aristocratic styling ‘Governor Romney’ – for a third lunge at the brass ring. Had O’Brien succeeded, President Hillary Clinton would have owed him at least a handwritten card.
In picking Robert C. O’Brien as his national security consigliere, Donald Trump has returned, as always, to the bottomless well of zombie establishment Republicans. ‘America First’ and myriad tweets ring hollow. O’Brien’s friend Bolton, once a working class scholarship boy from Baltimore, reportedly keeps a framed photo of Colts great Johnny Unitas in his office. The crew-cut Hall of Famer, though long dead, aptly summed up Trump’s foreign policy record: ‘Talk is cheap.’
Robert C. O’Brien will surely be a better national security adviser than John Bolton, who perverted both policy and process. Perhaps O’Brien isn’t the shallow thinker he appears to be in his own book, or maybe he’s learned a thing or two since 2016. But neither elephants nor corporate lawyers are creatures known for mid-life dynamism.