It is a danger in all White Houses: the longer an administration stays in office, the more detached it becomes from reality. The Obama administration is now exhibiting advanced signs of this political malady.
Exhibit A: The White House resolutely refuses to back down from the president’s claim that Yemen is a “success” for the administration’s counter-terrorism policy—a success worth emulating, in fact. This would be the country where the U.S. embassy and all U.S. Special Operations troops have been pulled out, and which is now in the grip of a multisided war involving the Houthis, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the forces of the previous strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, the forces of the current president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and the forces of Saudi Arabia and its allies. In recent days White House spokesman Josh Ernest has repeatedly been offered opportunities to walk back the earlier claims of success—and time after time he refuses to do so.
“The measure of U.S. policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise,” Earnest said in a roundtable discussion on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Thursday, adding, “The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of U.S. policy toward Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven that extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States.”
Umm, okay. But even if the US goal was not secure a stable government (and if it wasn’t, it should have been), Earnest never explained how the US is proposing to battle terrorist elements in Yemen now that our own Special Operations forces have been pulled out, now that a good deal of our intelligence has fallen into Houthi/Iranian hands, and now that the armed forces of the government of Yemen, whose help we were counting on, are being bombed by our Saudi allies.
Exhibit B: The White House won’t admit that the army’s decision to file desertion charges against Bowe Bergdahl might call into question the wisdom of the decision to swap him for five senior Taliban terrorists who were being held at Guantanamo. “Was it worth it? Absolutely,” Jen Psaki, the incoming White House communications director, told Fox News. “We have a commitment to our men and women serving in the military, defending our national security every day, that we’re going to do everything to bring them home if we can, and that’s what we did in this case.”
Umm, okay. But was Bergdahl actually “defending our national security”—or was he undermining that that security by walking off his base in a dangerous, Taliban-infested province of eastern Afghanistan, forcing other soldiers to risk their necks in a futile attempt to find him? (Bergdahl’s lawyer now claims that he was merely setting off in search of another American unit to report supposed misconduct at his Forward Operating base, implying that he had never heard of those recent inventions known as “the telephone” and “the Internet” which can be used to report misconduct without taking a stroll in Talibanistan.)
This continues the White House pattern of doubling down after committing Bergdahl gaffes. Recall how National Security Adviser Susan Rice claimed that Bergdahl served “with honor and distinction”. These comments came last summer, when the copious evidence of Bergdahl’s desertion was already widely known both inside and outside of the government. Refusing to back down an inch, Rice stubbornly defended her comments by claiming “what I was referring to was the fact that this was a young man who volunteered to serve his country in uniform at a time of war. That, in and of itself, is a very honorable thing.”
All right, I get it: all White Houses hate to admit mistakes because they think it simply throws raw meat to their critics. But sticking with a story that doesn’t pass the laugh test does critical damage to an administration’s credibility. The Bush administration saw that when its senior officials insisted on denying for years that there was any “insurgency” in Iraq. The Clinton administration saw that when the president couldn’t admit that he had indeed had “sexual relations” with “that woman.” The Reagan administration saw that when the president couldn’t admit for the longest time that he had traded “arms for hostages” with Iran. Now the Obama administration is showing it has learned nothing from the mistakes of its predecessors—that indeed it is intent on not merely equaling but even exceeding those mistakes. Even those classic Nixonian formulations “I misspoke myself” and “that statement is inoperative” show a greater willingness to admit error than currently evinced by this White House.