Commentary Magazine


Obama Advisors Try to Salvage Their Reputations

Some of the headaches of a president’s second term stem from the “don’t blame me” stories in which administration officials seek to use the press to wipe their fingerprints off of their boss’s policy failures. It’s their way of updating their resumes; unlike the president, they’ll need a job in the near future. Sometimes that means trying to bury old hatchets, and sometimes that means anonymously leaking details of their unheeded prophecies to the New York Times, as “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” did for today’s deep dive into the administration’s feckless and confused Syria policy.

One of the more recent additions to President Obama’s Cabinet, Samantha Power, has turned this into an art form. While working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” But now she realizes that the Democrats want to hand Clinton the next presidential nomination, and feels the need to tell NBC that she has “regretted it pretty much every day since,” and that the incident “just completely broke my heart that there is a fair amount of negativity heaped upon her that I find massively unfair, and the idea that I could have contributed in some way to that narrative, it was terrible.” And oh by the way, Power wants Hillary to know that she thinks Clinton is “a total rock star–she’s changed the world in a thousand ways.”

Vicious comments aimed at a rival in the heat of a presidential campaign are not unheard of, however. More difficult for Power to shake might be the fact that she spent her career naming and shaming Clinton administration officials she deemed bystanders to the atrocities in Rwanda and then she joined a presidential administration intensely focused on being bystanders to the atrocities in Syria. Because of Power’s career as a proponent of humanitarian intervention, the Obama White House gains much-needed credibility for sitting on the sidelines because the administration can point to Power’s presence in the Cabinet. For her silence, Power gets to live it up in the ambassador’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

But she seems aware that history may not look kindly on her career trajectory. She’ll likely be asked, as the Bouncing Souls sang, “How high was your price, and was it worth it?” Thus, Power appears in the Times article waging a noble but losing battle to intervene with the president’s chief of staff:

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.

Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.

“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.

“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.

It’s tempting to write this off as realism defeating idealism and present it as the theme of the Obama presidency. But as the Times article makes clear, the president didn’t seem to think or care enough about the mess in Syria to formulate anything resembling a coherent ideological or theoretical analysis. The Times’s sources stop just shy of accusing the president of playing Angry Birds during Syria briefings:

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

I’m not sure why it’s relevant that the president chewed gum other than for these sources to present the commander in chief in a disquietingly condescending manner–petty enough to remind the reader that many of these sources are grinding axes. Which brings us back to Power. The expected defense of her lavish, taxpayer-funded acquiescence to inaction seems to be that she wanted to intervene but cannot exactly force the president of the United States to heed her advice.

But what did she expect? She well knew the president’s outlook on foreign intervention, the Arab Spring, and on Syria specifically. Obama made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to get involved and didn’t intend to do anything about ridding the Middle East of Bashar al-Assad. She cannot pretend to be some frustrated idealist stuck trying to change the system from the inside. The president’s policy of inaction on Syria was clear and close to unshakeable, and she accepted the president’s offer to sit in the Waldorf and not make trouble while this policy continued to be carried out.

And she’s not the only one. So while all these sources may have a point about Obama’s ambivalence on Syria, their self-serving revisionism should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

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