Former Obama advisor talks foreign policy

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Tom Donilon, former national security advisor to President Obama, spoke on Monday about his years working for the Obama administration and on current challenges in American foreign policy.

Donilon, currently a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, addressed a crowd of about 90 students, faculty and members of the public at the town hall-style event hosted by the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. During his term as national security advisor between October 2010 and June 2013, Donilon relayed information from agencies such as the National Security Agency and the Pentagon to the president during daily security briefings and advised the president on policy.

“Serving in that job is kind of like dog years — one year there is like seven in a normal job,” Jim Levinsohn, the director of the Jackson Institute, said in opening remarks.

After Levinsohn’s introduction, Marc Grossman, a current fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, interviewed Donilon about his tenure in the Obama administration.

Donilon said the typical daily briefing involved over three hours of preparation for a 30-minute session with the president and other officials. If he were national security advisor today, Donilon said the unfolding National Security Agency leaks would likely take top billing on a morning briefing with the president.

Donilon said the NSA leaks may lead countries to “put walls around what goes on on the Internet” to avoid U.S. surveillance.

After the interview, four law students and four undergraduates posed questions to Donilon on topics including the legal and ethical considerations involved in setting policies around subjects like cyberwarfare and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Legal issues surrounding Guantanamo took a great deal of time, Donilon said, adding that the legal training he brought to the job of national security advisor proved “essential.” Each detainee’s case was reviewed to determine what should happen with them, he said.

Congress made a mistake in refusing to let prisoners be relocated, Donilon said.

Several questions related to U.S. relations with Pakistan, including questions on drone strikes and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“We have some fundamental issues with the Pakistanis, namely their supporting groups which now threaten their own state,” Donilon said. “We lived through a year-and-a-half or two-year period where every month there was an incident [between the U.S. and Pakistan].”

Donilon said the Obama administration’s decision not to inform the Pakistani government of its plans to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound was the product of internal debate.

Other questions dealt with managing the various national security staffs of the Executive Branch.

“Management is really a serious part of policy,” Donilon said. “What’s critical is implementation and accountability, and that’s the hard work in government.”

Four students interviewed expressed mixed reactions to Donilon’s remarks.

“He was very honest,” Carl Sandberg ’14 said, adding that he was surprised to hear about the involvement of the National Security Council in fostering free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Montserra Legorreta ’15 said the questions focused excessively on international law. She added that she would have liked to hear more on intelligence issues and intelligence gathering, especially in light of the Snowden leaks.

Joseph Goodman ’14 said he would have liked to hear Donilon’s opinion on the successes and failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

“He tackled it data point by data point, but I would have liked for him to step back,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Donilon made remarks and fielded questions in a one-hour off-the-record meeting with twelve Jackson Institute students.

The last Jackson Institute town hall brought Kofi Annan to campus in spring 2013.

 

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