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November 25, 2012

Groupthink on the Potomac

By

They called it the Solarium Project.

Shortly after winning the presidency, Dwight Eisenhower met with his secretary of state in the Solarium room of the White House to set up a sweeping strategic review of American foreign policy.

Teams of "experts" from the administration and the national security community laid out three disparate options for dealing with Moscow and avoiding World War III. Ike settled on a course of containment. It became the foundation for U.S. strategy throughout the Cold War.

The Solarium Project is often cited as sine qua non of strategic planning. And as Evan Thomas reveals in his new book, "Ike's Bluff," there is more to the story. A first-class strategist, Eisenhower hardly needed a staff study to scope out the right solution for surviving the showdown the Soviet Union. Rather, the president used the Solarium review to help lead Washington to where Ike knew they needed to go. Eisenhower was guiding the bureaucracy to a reasonable place -- convincing them that they were persuading him.

Shortly after the elections, the Obama White House signaled that it, too, may be embarking on a broad strategic review -- fine-tuning the president's policies for the second term. Good for them. A review is certainly in order.

It is difficult for the administration to argue honestly that foreign relations -- on almost any front -- are better than they were four years ago. All the president's "signature accomplishments -- the drawdown in Iraq; winding down in Afghanistan; toppling Gadhafi; bagging Bin Laden -- have delivered no real strategic dividends. On top of that, the president plans to engage the world with a much smaller military, a less forceful foreign policy and greater reliance on the cooperation of other states and international organizations and institutions. That seems an awfully "small ball" approach while America's fortunes wane on so many national security fronts.

If there is a review, it will likely be undertaken and implemented by a completely new national security team. By this summer, the White House phone book could have new names listed under the secretaries of defense, homeland security, and state, the national security advisor and the head of the CIA.

Who fills these posts really matters. If the White House elects to select cheerleaders who will just rubber stamp the Obama Doctrine, the White House will likely just double down on failure. Obama, like Eisenhower, may already know what he wants. But world events have already shown that what Mr. Obama wants isn't working so well.

On the other hand, if the commander in chief really wants as honest assessment of what is going on the world, he will have to pick some top people who are not afraid to give him an honest grade.

The Senate has an important role to play in this process. Question one in any confirmation hearing must determine whether the president has selected men and women who will deliver advice with wisdom, candor and a critical eye. Of course, they need to be loyal to their commander in chief and willing to follow orders. But before the president makes any critical security decision, he deserves and needs more than yes-man groupthink from his top advisers.

There is certainly no shortage of issues that ought to come up in the strategic review and Senate confirmation hearings. For starters: How will the United States deal with the dual challenge of the rise of political Islam and a resurgent global Islamist insurgency? How can the U.S. pivot to Asia without ignoring the wars likely to come in the Middle East?

We know the president can win elections. Now, we'll get to see how wisely he can lead and serve.

Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in The Examiner.

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