President Obama confronted a number of foreign policy issues during his two terms in office: a covert mission to kill Osama bin Laden; the expansion of settlements in Israel; a failure to curb Russian aggression in Crimea; military strikes in Libya; a red line and refugee crisis in Syria; the rise of the Islamic State; the reopening of relations with Cuba; and a nuclear deal with Iran. Behind the scenes, NationSwell Council member Matt Spence worked on many of these issues in the White House’s National Security Council from 2009 to 2012 and as head of Middle East policy in the Defense Department from 2012 to 2015. As Donald J. Trump readies to be sworn as president this week, NationSwell spoke to Spence, now a partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a fellow at Stanford, about the world the next commander-in-chief will face.
How did you get interested in international policy? Why did these big global issues matter to you personally?
In some sense, it’s unusual. I grew up in Southern California and lived in the same house my entire life. I’d never been out of the country until college. But when I was born, my father was in the Army reserves, and I remember him being deployed to Korea in preparation for the first Gulf War. My mom was the first in her family to be born in the United States; her grandparents and two uncles had come here very suddenly during World War II when the Nazis took over. So, in the background, there was a strong interest in international issues. I remember my dad reading a lot of military history and international affairs when I was growing up, and I was just fascinated.
You’ve credited your first White House role to a doctorate in international relations and “a fair amount of luck.” Why did you choose to join the Obama campaign in 2008?
I got very excited about Barack Obama when he was a candidate after reading a speech he gave in 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He talked about how the way to keep America safe was by pursuing smart policy and supporting development throughout the world. I’d written my doctoral dissertation at Oxford about the impact of democratization on developing the rule of law and what America could do to support that in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I was really struck that the danger in these societies was not that they’re aggressive, but that they were so weak and broken. I remember Obama at the time talking about how a starving child in the Middle East or Africa is as much a threat to the United States over the long term as the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I think we’ve seen that now with broken states, refugees, the rise of totally ungoverned spaces. Obama got that at a real visceral level, and he was saying this, by the way, when he’d only been a senator for a very short time.
Looking back on your time in the White House, what was the greatest test of your resolve?
I started at the White House on the first day after the inauguration, and I was just working all the time. I was at my desk by 6:30 or 7 in the morning, and I would leave around 10:30 or 11, as one of the last people leaving the West Wing. There is so much that is happening at the same time; the sheer bandwidth of the diverse issues is just mind-blowing. At the beginning of an administration, one of the most valuable qualities is just stamina to come in and work those types of hours. But the key, in the middle of all that, is to try to think about how to keep your head above water. What do you actually want to be doing? How do you think about history?
How did you maintain perspective amidst all the pressure?
I got a great piece of advice from my boss at the time, the national security adviser. He said, “Always make time to read history.” In the middle of these 14-hour days, I read the memoirs of past national security advisers, secretaries of state and other figures. I remember finding a passage in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s memoir from when, as Carter’s national security adviser, they dealt with the Iranian revolution. I gave it to the national security adviser as we were thinking through the protests surrounding Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in Tahrir Square. You don’t want to overgeneralize from history: Those were very different events in very different historical times. But there’s something humbling to think through the changes that occurred decades before. These issues appear very unique; everything looks new to you, in a sense. Essentially, how do you try to learn from your mistakes before you make them?
You had the chance to travel with and brief President Obama. What did you learn from him about leadership?
He has an amazing sense of priorities. Many times, sitting in the Situation Room, he would say very explicitly, “Look, this is a presidential-level decision. I’ve made my decision. You guys go execute and figure it out.” He was very clear on which issues rose to his level that he needed to handle and which he could delegate, which is incredibly important for an executive. There’s a lot of noise in national security or business decisions or running an organization. Given this huge glut coming at you, what are the key things you really need to pay attention to?
During your tenure at the Defense Department, what was the most important development that will shape the future of the Middle East?
When you ask anyone about the Middle East, they picture conflict, chaos, danger. We have to try to think about opportunities. We’re facing a real time of American isolationism. Americans don’t feel that the Middle East is unimportant, but they throw their hands up and wonder if there’s anything we can do about it. Can we maintain leadership without having tens of thousands of troops in the region that most Americans don’t really support?
I remember going to Jordan to lead defense talks with the government. We were in the process of providing a huge amount of military assistance, because they share a border with Syria and Iraq, they had a very serious refugee crisis and they were facing threats from neighbors. A senior member told me, “We deeply appreciate the military assistance that you’ve given us, and we need it. But what we need even more is millions of jobs.” In a sense, it sounds cliché, but as a representative of the most powerful military in the history of the world in a region that’s deeply hungry for security, these countries were thinking about how to educate and employ this next generation. When you spend your days thinking about war planning, that wasn’t what I expected. The most valuable export we have is not from these $750 billion defense budgets, but economic opportunity and entrepreneurship.
What piece of advice would you give to the incoming Trump administration?
Listen and surround yourself with good people who are dedicated, know what they’re doing and will be thoughtful about their role. Right now, there really is an opportunity to show what he’s going to do to govern, and he should show he’s going to govern in a very different way than he campaigned. He said he’s going to do that, and just match the work now.
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