All the President's Men and Women

By Michael Weiss

Legend has it that former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once asked Sydney Schanberg, an editor at Newsday, how he might win over the liberal columnist Murray Kempton, whose reputation for scrappily sticking up for those brought low on the left and the right was the source of much bipartisan admiration. “Try getting indicted, Governor,” came the reply.

I’ve felt a Kemptonesque twinge of empathy for the president this week, although it doesn’t run nearly so deep. His summer golf game has been rudely interrupted by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s more pressing calendar of events. A feisty Congress, including members of his own party who face difficult midterm elections, still think he was wrong not to arm Syria’s rebels earlier and more extensively and don’t mind saying so now that the Levant and Mesopotamia have become the set of a Mad Max movie. At the end of July, more than a dozen representatives and senators told Obama he was wrong. One in particular, Sen. Bob Corker, must have really told him so because, according to the Daily Beast, the president once again lost that unflappable confidence which helped get him elected and replied that the prospect of such a policy succeeding was “horseshit.” The chairman of the joint chiefs, two defense secretaries, two secretaries of state, two former Arabic-speaking ambassadors with regional specialties in Syria, a former CIA director, and a current deputy CIA director respectfully disagree, but what can they know?

When Obama hasn’t been doing battle with the Islamic State (IS) in and around Iraqi Kurdistan, he’s been ranged against former members of his own administration who, either out of principle or opportunism, have surveyed what has been wrought by seven-and-a-half years of American absenteeism in the Middle East and declared it a man-made disaster.

Let’s start with the principled. Ambassador Fred Hof was the first State Department official to resign from the administration over its appalling Syria policy, and since then, he has not only been the acutest and most well-informed critic of America’s sleepwalk into the caliphate, but also, I would imagine, a conduit for channeling the frustrations of current officials who know the price of whispering to the press against this White House. Hof lays out what appears to be a FUBAR consensus in a recent essay for Politico. “Few in the administration – including at very senior levels – think” that the bolstering of the mainstream Syrian opposition would not have hindered or slowed the rise of the IS, much less do they believe that such an option was, as Obama recently and defensively put it, a “fantasy.” 

Hof is at his best in snaring the president in his own contradictions. If this policy is so illusory, he writes, then why did Obama just authorize $500 million to be included in next year’s Pentagon budget for the arming and training of an admittedly tiny quotient of Syrian rebels for exactly that purpose – combating the rise of ISIS? Why is the president ridiculing his own plan? Why should Congress get behind something he presents as faunal excrement? And why does Obama persist in the lie that the rebels are “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” when Syria has had for decades a system of universal conscription and mandatory military service? The Washington Post weeks ago reported that the Violations Documentation Center, a reliable opposition-linked organization in Syria, found that of a small sample group of killed rebel fighters, soldiers actually constituted more than half of the total number, while doctors accounted for one percent, and farmers less than one percent. . Even where conscription does not apply, such condescending categorizations as the president resorts to are also misleading. I’ve spoken to innumerable “lawyers” or “professors” over the past several months about the deterioration of Iraq, including many who still hold the title of “colonel.”

It is a worrying sign that the commander-in-chief at times seems to be channeling the governing style of precisely the type of Arab authoritarian he’s most reluctant to depose. There really is no “administration” in Washington any more than there are “state institutions” in Syria; there is only the man and a select cabal of loyalist advisors who determine what to do and then deny that the sky is falling as a result. Those who do not are impelled to leave, or bide their time until it is politically expedient for them to leave.

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Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss.

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