Mirror, Mirror

Before Ditching His Top Aides, Obama Should Look in the Mirror

An old pro decodes the blind quotes and leaks surrounding the turmoil in the White House foreign policy team.


The New York Times could not have been more tentative on Thursday when it described what is supposedly occupying the mind of Barack Obama. The Grey Lady said that a series of badly mishandled global crises has “fueled speculation that Mr. Obama may shake up his team.” The caution aside, the Times placed Mark Landler’s story on its front page. And well it should have.

Washington has been inundated for months with the most stinging critiques of Obama’s foreign policies regarding Ebola, ISIS, Russia, loss of Asian confidence and on and on.

Inevitably, gossip seeped through the cracks about Mr. Obama changing his team for a big foreign policy push in his last two years.

There is something mysterious and possibly momentous, indeed even disturbing, about this most recent story in the Times. The source or sources for Landler’s story, which of course the Times would never reveal, are particularly important. Where did these dire warnings come from? As one who wrote several such accounts when I was the paper’s National Security Correspondent decades ago, I am versed in the ways of these blind alleys.

Most stories charging the White House with rank stupidity and incompetence come from Congress or the State Department. Rest assured negative assessments have flowed from these sources almost without respite for the last six years—and before that they said it of President George W. Bush’s operation. No decent news outlet ever runs such stories on these sources alone. The material (i.e. the slurs) generally gets inserted into other, larger pieces about policy debates.

Outside critiques of the White House take on more heft when they include Pentagon sources and especially senior generals, who have, by the way, been tearing into Mr. Obama and his immediate aides with mounting ferocity. But the generals’ criticisms are just that, criticism. This Times article suggests more.

If the sources of discontent were the secretaries of State or Defense or their close aides, then that would be frontpage material as well. Note that former secretaries Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton were quite circumspect in talking about the White House while in office. When they left, however, they too came down much harder and made headlines.

Now, it’s pretty clear from the content of the Times piece that the list of suspects does not include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel or Secretary of State John Kerry. Landler quotes someone comparing Kerry’s diplomatic style to Sandra Bullock floating off into space in the movie “Gravity.” And while Landler says that officials said that Hagel spoke more extensively in private than in public, that read like faint praise.

This points the fickle finger of guilt at the White House itself. In my day and I’m confident today, the Times editors would not display a story on the front page saying the president was thinking about dumping his White House crew without a White House source or sources. Furthermore, they would not highlight such a piece no matter how carefully worded unless the sources were clearly authoritative. They had to be very close to the president on personnel and foreign policy matters, someone unchallengeable when it came to “speculating” about Mr. Obama’s thinking.

Thus, the list of suspects is quite short: National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy NSA Advisor Tony Blinken, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Obama’s senior political advisor, Valerie Jarrett, and of course, Vice President Joe Biden. It’s possible I missed a name or three, but you get the point: the list is very short.

Far be it from me to indict any of these souls, but I would say only that given Rice’s particularly unfavorable treatment in the piece, it seems unlikely that she’s behind her own hanging. Landler recounts, for example, a scene earlier this month when she was grilled by outside experts on why she hadn’t produced a congressionally required strategic paper. She answered: “If we had put it out in February or April or July, it would have been overtaken by events two weeks later, in any one of those months.” They were no doubt bewildered that the National Security Advisor did not, apparently, understand that good strategy anticipates problems and develops contingency plans while generally spelling out American objectives regardless of the crise du jour.

This list of high profile suspects is intriguing not just because of what it says about the tenor of the White House, but because almost all of them are among the most loyal of Obama loyalists. They simply would not leak this shocking story about big lineup changes on their own accord. That strongly suggests that whoever gave the Landler story the needed imprimatur did so with Mr. Obama’s knowledge and approval. Notice the White House has not shouted denials from its rooftops. On the contrary, if Obama is behind it, here’s the motive: He’s been taking all the blame for the foreign policy mistakes and wants to disperse the burden.

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While a shakeup might be a very good thing for this administration, depending on who is brought in, there’s also something deeply worrying in this. The leak suggests that Mr. Obama remains blind to the principal cause of his foreign policy woes. Yes, his team has been a problem. But he is the person most responsible for the absence of a U.S. foreign policy strategy, for policy zigs and zags, and for the loss of credibility and power. The essential fault lies not with the stars around him, however dim, but with himself.

It was clear from Obama’s earliest days in office that he would run the most personalized and centralized decision-making operation, perhaps ever. It’s all about him, his judgments, his intelligence, his resistance to making serious strategies (of what can and should be done and how), and his cluelessness about how to get things done. Ask almost anyone in the national security system, and they will tell you that the process is constipated because of his mania for control and ad hoc decisions. If he wants to shake things up and achieve some major accomplishments in his last two years, he’s got to shake himself up first.

I don’t know if Obama will replace his team, make one or two new appointments or maybe do nothing at all, but what he really needs to do is to look at himself.