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Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough explains foreign policy decisions

<p>Gen. Martin Dempsey (right) used to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and currently teaches a course on campus as a Rubenstein fellow. Dempsey and McDonough discussed some of the country's biggest foreign policy challenges Friday.</p>

Gen. Martin Dempsey (right) used to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and currently teaches a course on campus as a Rubenstein fellow. Dempsey and McDonough discussed some of the country's biggest foreign policy challenges Friday.

Denis McDonough, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, discussed foreign policy and the Obama White House during an alumni weekend event Friday.

McDonough was joined by Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Graduate School ‘84, in the event, which focused on balancing national challenges, high-stakes careers and U.S. foreign policy. McDonough explained that in his opinion, although Obama has received criticism for being an insular leader, he is thoughtful when attempting to solve America’s problems and tries to understand multiple points of view.

“I think [the president] believes there is a right and wrong,” McDonough said. “I also believe that he does not think that he is the keeper of the right answer, but the right answer is ultimately out there. He’s extremely curious—tireless—which is something you want.”

As chief of staff, McDonough is Obama’s highest ranking aide. He oversees the issues that come before the president and works closely with Obama to direct the staff of the executive branch.

Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and the director of the program in American Grand Strategy, moderated the discussion. He pressed McDonough about whether Obama has become more candid in recent interviews especially by showing his frustration about various issues. 

 McDonough said that he did not think Obama has become more frank, although he noted that Obama has been accepting more opportunities to speak with the media recently. He also responded to criticisms of the White House as insular by suggesting that some people involved in the decision-making process may feel shut out by the intense debates that occur in the White House.

“Debates can get hot. And that’s okay … That makes policy stronger,” McDonough said.

McDonough and Dempsey also noted that the United States’ foreign policy challenges have evolved greatly during Obama’s time in office, with continued challenging relationships with China and Russia and a struggle to slow North Korea’s increased hostility.

Dempsey explained that if he had the opportunity to try again, he would look for more solutions to the ongoing civil war in Syria.

“It’s not because we didn’t try… It was such a dynamic situation… It’s some combination of the complexity, the opportunity cost that we would have had to pay,” Dempsey said. “This period of time was the same time we were beginning to worry about the Pacific, about Eastern Europe, and we’re still worried about North Africa and North Korea and Iran… If I had to do it over, I’d take another swing at it. I’m not sure I could come up with a different answer.”

The Syrian situation, along with instability in Libya, are both difficult, McDonough noted. He said that Obama is saddened by the suffering of the Syrian people. However, he argued that the administration is implementing a policy that should help alleviate the crisis. 

“We have a strategy that’s going to require time,” McDonough said. “Ultimately, the most durable solution for Libya will have to come from Libyans, and the most durable solution for Syria will have to come from Syrians.”

The conversation was followed by a question-and-answer session in which audience members asked about issues including how government is changing in the digital age and how to solve problems in the Middle East.

Audience members said that the attendance of such high-profile world leaders is indicative of Duke’s vibrant intellectual environment. 

“To have the White House Chief of Staff and the Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was an outstanding reflection on Duke’s quality and ability to attract figures of such national prominence,” said Tim Gwilliam, a master’s student in the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The event—which was hosted by the Duke University Program in American Grand Strategy along with the Duke Alumni Association—had originally been slated for Feb. 15, but was cancelled due to inclement weather and the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. It was part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family Lecture Series. 

As the event concluded, Feaver joked that McDonough should advise Obama to attend a Duke basketball game before he leaves office next year.

“If he can go to Cuba, he can come to Cameron,” Feaver said.