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What Robert O'Brien May Mean For National Security Policy And Foreign Relations


We are following some personnel news from the White House. President Trump has announced his choice for national security adviser to replace John Bolton, who was ousted last week. His choice is Robert O'Brien, a State Department official with the current title of special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. And let's talk this choice through first with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi there, Greg.


GREENE: So tell me about Robert O'Brien.

MYRE: So as you noted, he's the president's guy on hostage affairs. He's helped with the release of Americans in places like North Korea and Yemen. President Trump has said there's about 20 American hostages being held abroad - others put that number a little lower but somewhere in that ballpark. Now, the most prominent case, from the public's point of view, has been that of A$AP Rocky, which was not actually a hostage case.

Now, he's the rapper who was charged in Sweden with assault. And O'Brien went there last month to monitor the trial. And A$AP Rocky was found guilty of assault, but he was released on time served. So this is the case the public might associate with O'Brien. But most of the time, he's pretty low profile.

GREENE: Well, tell us more about his experience maybe prior to this current role in negotiating hostage releases and so forth.

MYRE: Right. So much of his career has been as a lawyer in California. He set up his own firm there. And he's had these periodic stints in government, mostly involving international affairs and diplomacy. President George W. Bush appointed him to a position at the United Nations - the U.S.'s mission at the United Nations - back in 2005. He was part of a State Department program on Afghanistan's legal system. He was a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney. So in between these government or political jobs, he's been a lawyer. And worth noting, he does not have military experience.

GREENE: You said low profile. The first thing that strikes me is that is very different from John Bolton, who is the national security adviser on the way out. So, I mean, talk about that comparison.

MYRE: Yeah. He's very different, both from Bolton and some of the other people that have had top national security jobs. Bolton - very outspoken, very hawkish. Those terms could also be used to describe Mike Pompeo, who's seen as the top sort of adviser these days as secretary of state. These were all already prominent figures before they got the job. Trump's also picked some generals in the past - H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly.

So O'Brien is a much lesser known figure, also has a different type of personality. By reputation, he's seen as affable, friendly, a manager, a negotiator - not this sort of sharp-elbowed, outspoken figure.

GREENE: We talked a lot about Bolton's perceived influence within the White House. He had pretty strong views about Iran policy, for example. Do we know what O'Brien's position might be on, you know, say, an issue like that, which is, you know, a current crisis?

MYRE: Exactly, David. But we don't because he really doesn't have a public record of taking his own positions on national security issues. Now, he is on Twitter, but that's almost entirely about his efforts to get U.S. hostages released. Or he's retweeting tweets from President Trump or Mike Pompeo on this topic. He doesn't express his own opinions or he certainly hasn't to this point, so a little bit of a black box in that sense.

GREENE: All right. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks a lot.

MYRE: Sure thing, David.

GREENE: And I want to bring in another voice here, someone who knows what it's like to work on these issues inside the White House. It's Brett McGurk. He's served in senior positions across the last three presidential administrations, most recently as part of the national security team under John Bolton. McGurk resigned at the end of last year after President Trump's decision to remove troops from Syria. Thanks for being here this morning.

BRETT MCGURK: Sure. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: How well do you know Robert O'Brien?

MCGURK: Well, for two years in the State Department, he was a colleague of mine. And I worked with him on a few issues. I think, look, he's a - I think it's a wise decision. He's discreet. A little bit about that job as a special presidential envoy and hostage affairs...


MCGURK: ...It was created by the Obama administration. And it's a difficult position. You have to be navigating the inner agency. You're dealing with the families of hostages. You're dealing with the foreign governments. And you have to be very discreet. And I think he handled - he handled that job quite well.

GREENE: Why do you think - I mean, I'm assuming you do - tell me, you know, why that might be good experience for a job like national security adviser.

MCGURK: Well, you know, the key thing about the national security adviser in the mold of a Brent Scowcroft or Steve Hadley, who I worked with in the Bush White House, is you're really a counselor. You're basically advising the president. But you're really a facilitator and a coordinator amongst the different departments and agencies. And you're trying to harness the expertise of the U.S. government to provide the president with the best options - policy options - particularly in a crisis situation as we face right now in the Middle East.

Where the job really doesn't seem to work is where a national security adviser has very strong views about foreign policy and sees his job as more of an agent or an implementer with an agenda. And I think John Bolton carried an agenda into the West Wing. Often, it contradicted the president's own agenda. And the policy process broke down, so it led to a lot of dysfunction.

I think with Robert, you'll be back to the more traditional coordinator, facilitator role. But the problem that he'll have is that the president ultimately is the decider. And the president here is Donald Trump, who tends to just run foreign policy by chaos from crisis to crisis. So I think he's got his work cut out for him.

GREENE: Well, what does that mean if you're Robert O'Brien, if you have a president, who is, as you're - seem to be suggesting, is just going to run foreign policy the way he wants to no matter what? Do you really have a role?

MCGURK: Well, you know, it's interesting. I mean, Donald Trump said it's easy to be my national security adviser because I make all the decisions. And that's...

GREENE: Yeah. He was pretty clear about that.

MCGURK: (Laughter) Listen, I think - where we've gotten into trouble on foreign policy is that - I'm going to put it this way - that we have maximalist policies. On Iran, it pretty much is a regime change policy. We're strangling their economy to try to really change their behavior but ultimately to try to change that regime. That is a maximalist foreign policy for a minimalist president. The president does not want to be involved in new conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. But the policies lead him into these corners, where he finds himself right now.

So I think what Robert can do is, you know, try to, again, harness the expertise of the inner agency, working with Mike Pompeo and with the new secretary of defense - we're going to have a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - to try to just think. You know, think three times before you cut, before you announce policies.

We just seem to be way ahead of our skis on Iran, on Venezuela, even on Syria in terms of what we're trying to achieve versus what we're actually willing to do. And I think the president finds himself in some real difficulty on foreign policy. I mean, Iran is the crisis of the day. But it's going to keep - he's going to have crisis after crisis, month after month if he pursues these maximalist policies without a readiness to really back it up when it runs into friction in the real world.

GREENE: You know, I was talking to Dennis Ross on the program the other day, you know, a veteran diplomat who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. And he was saying that on an issue like Iran, the important thing, you know, for President Trump to do is definitely talk tough but that he might really need to bring in European allies to exert some sort of greater pressure on Iran.

Is that the kind of thing that Robert O'Brien could be doing behind the scenes, reaching out to allies in a way that maybe this president is unable to?

MCGURK: Well, traditionally, I mean, that's the job of the secretary of state. And I think where you had some...


MCGURK: ...Where you had some tension between Pompeo and Bolton is that Bolton was kind of out there, again, implementing policy. And I don't think Robert will see himself in that role. I think he'll really defer to Pompeo as the implementer to rally our allies. But the Iran policy suffers from some other defects. So even getting our allies on board at this stage is going to be very difficult.

GREENE: Brett McGurk is currently a lecturer at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. Thanks so much for being here.

MCGURK: It was great. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.