Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tommy Vietor

Obama’s Siege Mentality

You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

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You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

There was the famous “hashtag diplomacy,” during which spokeswoman Jen Psaki demanded that Vladimir Putin stop invading Ukraine and thereby truly begin to “live by the promise of hashtag.” Even if Putin wanted to give the order to retreat from Ukraine, there was no way he could do so until he stopped laughing, so the selfie diplomacy was counterproductive as well as inane.

Then there was Marie Harf, first rewriting history on the bin Laden raid and getting called out on television by Andrea Mitchell and then, in the course of defending some more ridiculous moments by Psaki, picking a fight with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and even calling him “sexist” for criticizing Psaki.

If that last gambit sounded eerily like a stale, cynical Obama campaign ploy, there’s a reason for it: Psaki and Harf came to the State Department from the committee to reelect the president. (Though, in fairness, Harf worked in communications for the CIA earlier in her career.) And that, I think, helps us understand why exactly Psaki and Harf were given their current jobs, and why the president may not quite understand how much of a disaster they’ve been.

Over the weekend Paul Mirengoff at Power Line offered his own dual theory as to why Obama hires such “obvious lightweights” to speak for American foreign policy. First, Mirengoff writes, “Obama is playing to a core component of his base — the young.” Second, Mirengoff believes “Team Obama is trying to ‘demystify’ foreign policy — to make it look unthreatening almost to the point of child’s play. Psaki and Harf provide visual expression of this view just by standing at the podium and talking.”

He continues:

If one believes that the world is a dangerous place and that the U.S. must, accordingly, respond with constant vigilance and, at times, forceful engagement, then you want your spokespersons to look and talk maturely and somberly — to project, in a word, gravitas. For those of us who see the world that way, James Haggerty (Eisenhower’s press secretary who once said “if you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he’ll get rich or famous or both”) is a model.

But suppose you don’t believe the world is all that inherently dangerous. Suppose you believe, as Obama does, that the U.S. is at the root of many of the world’s problems and that a new dawn in international relations is possible if America will just lighten up.

In that case, you will be quite happy with light, breezy young foreign policy spokespersons. And if, like Harf, that spokesperson likes to get snarky with conservative journalist, all the better.

I recommend Mirengoff’s whole post on the topic. But my guess would be, as I mentioned earlier, to look to the Harf/Psaki team’s last jobs to grasp their current ones.

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a long article on President Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” his weekly meetings on counterterrorism. The article was centered on Obama’s drone war and how he was choosing and eliminating terror targets instead of capturing them. Present in the room for those meetings, the Times revealed, was Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod, “his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

Axelrod was there because Obama is always hyper-aware of the partisan political implications of everything he does, including national security acts and choosing which terrorists to assassinate. It rankled people a bit that Axelrod sat in on those meetings, but for Obama cynical political point-scoring tends to be the priority.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote a piece on “Obama’s Kissingers,” the people the president had brought into his national-security inner circle. It was heavy on the “political hacks.” Some of them, like Tommy Vietor (who famously responded to a question on Benghazi with the immortal words “Dude, this was like two years ago”), were particularly undistinguished.

So why put people like that out front to take questions from the press? Because Obama’s innate bitter partisanship dominates his staffing decisions, and because he not only views the press as possible enemies–and treats them as such–but any questions as being part of the daily political competition between the president and his many pursuers.

A disturbing example of this was contained in an August column by Chemi Shalev on the administration’s decision to withhold weaponry from Israel during wartime. Shalev writes: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

That is the kind of remarkably unhealthy paranoia for which the president has unfortunately come to be known. And it explains why political hacks and spinmeisters are the only people he trusts to field questions from the press. To this president, everyone’s a suspect.

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Dude! Benghazi Won’t Go Away Until We Get the Truth

Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

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Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

BRET BAIER: According to the e-mails and the time line, the CIA circulates new talking points after they’ve removed the mention of al Qaeda and then at 6:21 the White House, you, add a line about the administration warning on September 10th of social media reports calling for demonstrations. True?

TOMMY VIETOR: I believe so.

BAIER: Did you also change attacks to demonstrations in the talking points? VIETOR: Maybe. I don’t really remember.

VIETOR: Dude, this was like two years ago. We’re still talking about the most mundane thing.

BAIER: Dude, it’s what everybody is talking about.

While Vietor is being rightly mocked for his cavalier and sophomoric attitude about a famous lie, it’s actually quite telling. Democrats are befuddled as to why the Benghazi story is still being discussed since they think there’s nothing to it and that we should have all moved on a year ago. But it won’t go away until they start telling the truth.

This exchange came on the heels of the delayed release of the shocking email from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and the repeated arrogant lies told about this communication by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. This is more than mere fodder for conspiracy theorists and partisans who watch Fox News. They speak to an arrogant contempt for the public and the press that is rooted in a belief that this administration is above scrutiny and that anyone who wants to know the truth about the misleading talking points or anything else about this event should just shut up.

Though their performance on this issue may argue to the contrary, Republicans can walk and chew gum at the same time. They are perfectly capable of persisting in efforts to get to the bottom of Benghazi while holding the president accountable for what is happening in Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East.

As I’ve written previously, Benghazi won’t be a decisive factor in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential election. But this story isn’t going away no matter how much Obama and his putative successor Hillary Clinton want it to. That’s not because GOP fanatics are deranged haters but because the White House seems to think telling the truth is an option rather than an obligation. That’s a belief that was reinforced for a long time in much of the mainstream media that seemed to take its marching orders from the White House. But the belated release and attempts to cover up and then lie about the smoking gun email on the talking points has aroused even some sectors of the press that might once have been counted on not to try to expose the administration to ridicule.

It’s not too late for a select committee to explore why Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans were left to die in Benghazi without adequate protection or U.S. forces being able to rush to their aid. It should press the administration about its failure to catch the terrorists even though they continue to operate in plain view in the region. And it should also force officials to finally fess up about their political motivations for trying to pretend that a video rather than a revived al-Qaeda coalition was responsible as well as to how and why this was covered up.

These are not trivial concerns and if the House does its job, finding the answers to these questions will not be either a distraction from other foreign-policy failures or a political bonanza for Democrats. We can’t move on until we know the truth and that is something that has not happened yet. Much to the frustration of the White House, Benghazi will be over when we find out the truth and not a day sooner.

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Bibi Seeks to Calm Obama

According to this report, Bibi is looking for ways to cool the Obami’s self-induced furor over the Jerusalem housing project:

Israel is willing to carry out trust-building moves in the West Bank in order to facilitate peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday.

In a phone call between Netanyahu and Clinton, the Israeli PM reportedly conveyed a detailed list of gestures Jerusalem was willing to perform in order to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. … These measure likely include the release of Palestinian prisoners, the removal of West Bank checkpoints and perhaps even a willingness to transfer West Bank territories to PA control.

As for the housing activity that was the pretext for the spat, Jackson Diehl reports:

According to press reports in both countries, Clinton demanded in a phone call last Friday that Netanyahu reverse the decision by a local council to advance the construction of 1,600 new units in a neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood outside Israel’s 1967 borders. Fortunately the State Department has not confirmed that position officially — though it has now been adopted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a condition for proceeding with the talks.

Netanyahu would never take that step. First, he might be barred from doing so under Israeli law; more importantly, building new Jewish housing in Jerusalem is one of the few issues that virtually all Israelis agree on. No government would formally agree to suspend it — nor is such a suspension necessary to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Leading Israelis and Palestinians — including Abbas — have repeatedly agreed, beginning a decade ago, that as part of any final settlement Israel will annex the Jewish neighborhoods it has built in Jerusalem since 1967, as well as nearby settlements in the West Bank. In return Palestinians will exercise sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and receive compensatory land in Israel.

The Israeli hope is that rather than continue to press this self-defeating demand, Obama will accept Israeli assurances that the new neighborhood will not be constructed anytime soon; it is, in fact, two or three years from groundbreaking. Coupled to that would be an Israeli pledge to avoid publicizing further construction decisions in Jerusalem. The result would not be a freeze, but something like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for settlement.

In other words, Bibi is doing everything possible to allow the Obami to unwind from the snit they have worked themselves into over a housing issue that is, of course, entirely ignorable, as the suggested solution proves. And will he and the president meet when Bibi is in town for AIPAC, now that the president won’t be conveniently out of town? We don’t know. One hopes the president’s pique, so evident in the recent assault (the president’s “anger” was conveyed, the language of “affront” and “insult” was bantered about) will be put aside. For doesn’t the president — who’s shown himself to be particular peevish and lacking in diplomatic finesse — need to show he can make a gesture? It might be wise to bestir himself to invite Bibi over. And maybe even give him a photo op or two.

Oddly, I see no mention of trust-building moves demanded of the Palestinians after their calls to “rage” and the celebratory naming of a square after terrorist Dalal Mughrabi. Isn’t some gesture being asked of them? After all, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor assured me yesterday that “we are using our leverage.” But only with one side, for it’s foolhardy, I suppose the administration thinking goes, to actually ask anything of the Palestinians. And this is the posture going into the proximity talks — which were designed to satisfy the Palestinians who can’t bring themselves to accept Bibi’s invitation for direct talks. The infantilization of the Palestinians continues — they can’t control their own violence, so therefore we don’t demand they do. Just come to the proximity talks and George Mitchell will do all the work!

This is why no peace is ever processed. The Palestinians know that nothing is demanded of them and that they can riot in the streets, collect concessions, tout their success, foot-stomp some for more goodies, and wait for another round of concessions. Call it the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s a formula for getting nowhere with the peace process. It’s also encouraging them to keep up the violence. Why shouldn’t they — there’s everything to be gained and nothing to be lost.

According to this report, Bibi is looking for ways to cool the Obami’s self-induced furor over the Jerusalem housing project:

Israel is willing to carry out trust-building moves in the West Bank in order to facilitate peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday.

In a phone call between Netanyahu and Clinton, the Israeli PM reportedly conveyed a detailed list of gestures Jerusalem was willing to perform in order to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. … These measure likely include the release of Palestinian prisoners, the removal of West Bank checkpoints and perhaps even a willingness to transfer West Bank territories to PA control.

As for the housing activity that was the pretext for the spat, Jackson Diehl reports:

According to press reports in both countries, Clinton demanded in a phone call last Friday that Netanyahu reverse the decision by a local council to advance the construction of 1,600 new units in a neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish neighborhood outside Israel’s 1967 borders. Fortunately the State Department has not confirmed that position officially — though it has now been adopted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a condition for proceeding with the talks.

Netanyahu would never take that step. First, he might be barred from doing so under Israeli law; more importantly, building new Jewish housing in Jerusalem is one of the few issues that virtually all Israelis agree on. No government would formally agree to suspend it — nor is such a suspension necessary to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Leading Israelis and Palestinians — including Abbas — have repeatedly agreed, beginning a decade ago, that as part of any final settlement Israel will annex the Jewish neighborhoods it has built in Jerusalem since 1967, as well as nearby settlements in the West Bank. In return Palestinians will exercise sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and receive compensatory land in Israel.

The Israeli hope is that rather than continue to press this self-defeating demand, Obama will accept Israeli assurances that the new neighborhood will not be constructed anytime soon; it is, in fact, two or three years from groundbreaking. Coupled to that would be an Israeli pledge to avoid publicizing further construction decisions in Jerusalem. The result would not be a freeze, but something like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for settlement.

In other words, Bibi is doing everything possible to allow the Obami to unwind from the snit they have worked themselves into over a housing issue that is, of course, entirely ignorable, as the suggested solution proves. And will he and the president meet when Bibi is in town for AIPAC, now that the president won’t be conveniently out of town? We don’t know. One hopes the president’s pique, so evident in the recent assault (the president’s “anger” was conveyed, the language of “affront” and “insult” was bantered about) will be put aside. For doesn’t the president — who’s shown himself to be particular peevish and lacking in diplomatic finesse — need to show he can make a gesture? It might be wise to bestir himself to invite Bibi over. And maybe even give him a photo op or two.

Oddly, I see no mention of trust-building moves demanded of the Palestinians after their calls to “rage” and the celebratory naming of a square after terrorist Dalal Mughrabi. Isn’t some gesture being asked of them? After all, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor assured me yesterday that “we are using our leverage.” But only with one side, for it’s foolhardy, I suppose the administration thinking goes, to actually ask anything of the Palestinians. And this is the posture going into the proximity talks — which were designed to satisfy the Palestinians who can’t bring themselves to accept Bibi’s invitation for direct talks. The infantilization of the Palestinians continues — they can’t control their own violence, so therefore we don’t demand they do. Just come to the proximity talks and George Mitchell will do all the work!

This is why no peace is ever processed. The Palestinians know that nothing is demanded of them and that they can riot in the streets, collect concessions, tout their success, foot-stomp some for more goodies, and wait for another round of concessions. Call it the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” It’s a formula for getting nowhere with the peace process. It’s also encouraging them to keep up the violence. Why shouldn’t they — there’s everything to be gained and nothing to be lost.

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Re: Did We Really Condemn the Palestinian Call to Violence?

I e-mailed White House spokesman Tommy Vietor this morning, asking for the basis for Obama’s claim that “we condemned them [the Palestinians, about their call to violence] in the same way” the administration did with Israel, concerning the housing-complex announcement. He replied this afternoon, citing the very same language I recited in my earlier post. He added: “So are we using our leverage? We are using our leverage. But we also recognize that these are difficult issues for both sides. So we are using our leverage, but we have to be realistic at the same time.” I’m not sure what that means — that it’s not “realistic” to condemn Palestinian violence?

But, wait — none of those statements, which both Vietor and I are looking at, use the word “condemn.” I have asked Vietor again: “So what was the President referring to when he said to Baier ‘we condemned them in the same way’?” Let’s see what the White House has to say.

We all know what is going on here: The White House doesn’t hold the Palestinians to any standard remotely akin to that employed for Israel, which, after all, is our ally. The president only made that point even more apparent by not accurately conveying our recent statements.

I e-mailed White House spokesman Tommy Vietor this morning, asking for the basis for Obama’s claim that “we condemned them [the Palestinians, about their call to violence] in the same way” the administration did with Israel, concerning the housing-complex announcement. He replied this afternoon, citing the very same language I recited in my earlier post. He added: “So are we using our leverage? We are using our leverage. But we also recognize that these are difficult issues for both sides. So we are using our leverage, but we have to be realistic at the same time.” I’m not sure what that means — that it’s not “realistic” to condemn Palestinian violence?

But, wait — none of those statements, which both Vietor and I are looking at, use the word “condemn.” I have asked Vietor again: “So what was the President referring to when he said to Baier ‘we condemned them in the same way’?” Let’s see what the White House has to say.

We all know what is going on here: The White House doesn’t hold the Palestinians to any standard remotely akin to that employed for Israel, which, after all, is our ally. The president only made that point even more apparent by not accurately conveying our recent statements.

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