All the President's Men and Women
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.
Which brings me to the opportunistic criticism. It’s been thoroughly enjoyable watching a media establishment force itself to remember that Hillary Clinton never liked or respected Obama even before he dared to steal away from her the one job for which she’d been preparing all her sentient life. There was a time when journalists seemed to know instinctively that Clinton would have done, and indeed did do, everything in her power to keep an upstart freshman senator out of the Oval Office. It was she, after all, who suggested that her black rival might be assassinated just as Robert Kennedy had been before the California primary in 1968 – and this by way of justifying her continuance in the 2008 primary long after it was clear that her day was over. It was her husband who, in lobbying the now-dead Ted Kennedy to endorse his wife, suggested to the Massachusetts liberal that Obama was more suited to the White House role of Lee Daniels. “[A] few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee,” Bill Clinton said – or at least that’s how a Kennedy friend relayed the remark to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, authors of the campaign biography Game Change. That book also made clear that the first female politician to circulate the association between Obama and his fellow Chicagoan Bill Ayers was Clinton, at a primary debate in Philadelphia in April 2008, to be exact. In other words, long before Sarah Palin made her more infamous crack about Obama’s “palling around” with a domestic terrorist from the Weather Underground.
But for a while there, Madame Secretary had us going. All that enmity and plotting was evidently water over the Mosul Dam. She played the dutiful and unprovocative top diplomat who kept her own counsel about her boss’s manifest shortcomings in order to cultivate the necessary resume to become his successor. As the IS takes over more of Iraq and Syria and threatens the Yazidis with extermination – or more importantly, as Obama’s foreign policy approval ratings hit the Bushland territory of the high 30s – Clinton has finally been able to speak her mind. In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, she tossed Obama under a jihadist-driven Humvee, and now of course professes to have done no such thing. The failure to arm the moderate Syrian opposition, she said, brought us to where we are now, and this is a real shame because that opposition was well known to America from the beginning of the revolution. Well, Robert Ford, another defector from the administration, made much the same point a few months ago. But Clinton had gone further in mischaracterizing the rebels; she formerly described them paradoxically as inscrutable and/or possibly akin to Hamas or al-Qaeda, and yet now she states with confidence that “there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle.” Moreover, Obama’s flippant foreign policy doctrine – “don’t do stupid shit” – she considers not an “organizing principle” befitting of a great nation such as the United States, which after all defeated both fascism and communism in the 20th century. “Peace, progress, and prosperity” is her preferred slogan for 2016.
It’s not that I disagree with Clinton’s substantive points; I’ve been making them myself for much longer than she has. It’s that she plainly held these opinions at a time when someone of her stature’s airing them publicly might have actually mattered. Instead, she chose not to break ranks or quit a government she thought was headed for calamity, and I’m sure I could unearth those who would argue, in all earnestness, that she chose this course because she felt she should stay and fight her corner to influence policy, not because causing a necessary scandal within the Democratic Party would complicate her future ambitions.
Plenty of correctives to US screw-ups in the Middle East have been written in the last few weeks, but none, I think, has addressed a more overriding problem that three long years of covering the Syria conflict has made me intimately acquainted with. American politicians still think people in faraway lands are just as stupid as their own constituents at home and therefore cannot discern the difference between someone telling the truth and someone trying to get ahead. “Why do they hate us? Why are they so conspiratorially-minded? How do we convince them that we’re on their side?” The current news cycle would be a good place to start answering those questions.