Is No Place for Speechwriters
Kimberley A. Strassel
June 10, 2014
If the Bergdahl uproar feels creepily reminiscent of the Benghazi uproar, or the Syrian "red line" uproar, or the choose-your-own- Obama -foreign-adventure uproar, it's because they all have a common denominator. This is what happens when political hacks formally take over foreign policy.
It's the "formal" point that bears some meditation. Barack Obama isn't the first president to make foreign-policy decisions on the basis of domestic political calculations. He does, however, win the distinction of being the first president to utterly disregard--to treat with contempt--the institutions and procedures that were designed to help the commander in chief insulate the serious business of foreign policy and national security from baser political concerns.
At the heart of this effort is the National Security Council, which has served presidents since its inception under Harry Truman. Made up of the president, vice president, a national security adviser, various Cabinet secretaries, and representatives from the military and the intelligence agencies, the NSC has been by procedure and fierce tradition a rare apolitical forum, a place for the president to hear hard reality. NSC staff are foreign-policy grownups, and its meetings are barred to political henchmen.
Or that was the case, until the Obama White House. By early March 2009, two months into this presidency, the New York Times had run a profile of David Axelrod, noting that Mr. Obama's top campaign guru and "political protector" was now "often" to be found "in the late afternoons" walking "to the Situation Room to attend some meetings of the National Security Council." President Obama's first national security adviser, former Marine General and NATO Commander Jim Jones, left after only two years following clashes with Mr. Obama's inner circle.
He was replaced by Democrat political operative and former Fannie Mae lobbyist Tom Donilon. Mr. Donilon joined Ben Rhodes, the Obama campaign speechwriter, who in 2009 had been elevated to deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Also present was Tommy Vietor, whose entire career prior to NSC spokesman was as an Obama spinmeister--as a press aide in the 2004 Senate run, and campaign flack for the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and assistant White House press secretary. In fairness, his credentials also included getting caught on camera in 2010 pounding beers, shirtless, at a Georgetown bar. America's foreign-policy experts at work.
Not that Mr. Obama's first instinct is even to rely on his now overtly political NSC. This paper reported in September 2013 that as the White House struggled with the question of military intervention in Syria, it summoned all the old "Obama loyalists" for advice. They included his 2008 campaign manager ( David Plouffe ), his former press secretary ( Robert Gibbs ), a former speechwriter ( Jon Favreau ), and Mr. Vietor (who had by then left the NSC to form a political consulting group).
A serious-minded NSC, in the tumultuous aftermath of Benghazi, would have responded with a sober assessment for its president of the real and continued terror threat, and of the failings that resulted in four dead Americans. Instead we find the deputy NSA, Mr. Rhodes, crafting an internal email advising his colleagues to spin, and blame it all on an Internet video. Mr. Rhodes had no interest in advising the president on hard realities. His only interest was ensuring his boss got re-elected.
The same political Svengalis rooted for Mr. Obama's decision to set an Afghan withdrawal deadline, over the objections of military personnel. They were the architects of the president's decision to drop his "red line" warning to Syria's Bashar Assad on Congress, and then blame Congress for failure of action. They gave us resets, pivots and leading from behind, and in recent weeks have explained that Mr. Obama's foreign policy is best described as "Don't do stupid [stuff]." This is what happens when you give hacks control: Your foreign-policy "vision" gets reduced to a public-safety commercial from a vodka company.
Presidents bear ultimate responsibility for institutional dysfunction, but it is also the case that Mr. Donilon and his successor, Susan Rice, have ill-served their boss by tolerating (or even encouraging) political nonsense. Debate all you want over what motivated the White House to do the Bergdahl swap. What's beyond debate is that politics drove its rollout, and that there was nobody with enough seriousness or clout in the White House to stop it.
It was a political desire to sweep the Veterans Administration scandal off the front pages that put President Obama in the Rose Garden with Sgt. Bergdahl's parents--when Secretary of State John Kerry, or even a press release, would have given distance. It was a political desire to claim a foreign-policy victory that saw Ms. Rice again peddling a phony story, this time about how Sgt. Bergdahl had served with "honor and distinction"--when senior officials had to know that was questionable. Who failed to warn the president that Sgt. Bergdahl's fellow soldiers would surely speak out? Who failed to walk him through the ABCs of the statute he signed requiring Congressional notification, or warn him of the bipartisan fury his cold shoulder would inspire?
Most remarkable is that despite the endless loop of foreign-policy fiascoes, this White House seems oblivious of the need for institutional change. It has had its share of experienced hands ( Bob Gates, Leon Panetta ) come and go, but shows no evidence it learned from them. In Obama world, there is only politics. And so the world will continue to burn.
This article was originally featured in The Wall Street Journal. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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