Why Obama's foreign policy is so amateurish
Short answer: it’s run by political hacks who have muscled aside or ignored the sober-minded and experienced professionals who have served in the National Security Council since President Truman established it to deal with the realities of the Cold War and American leadership. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Kimberly Strassel chronicles the decline and fall of institutional safeguards of the national interest:
…the NSC has been by procedure and fierce tradition a rare apolitical forum, a place for the president to hear hard reality. NSC staff are foreign-policy grownups, and its meetings are barred to political henchmen.
Or that was the case, until the Obama White House. By early March 2009, two months into this presidency, the New York Times had run a profile of David Axelrod, noting that Mr. Obama's top campaign guru and "political protector" was now "often" to be found "in the late afternoons" walking "to the Situation Room to attend some meetings of the National Security Council." President Obama's first national security adviser, former Marine General and NATO Commander Jim Jones, left after only two years following clashes with Mr. Obama's inner circle.
He was replaced by Democratic political operative and former Fannie Mae lobbyist Tom Donilon. Mr. Donilon joined Ben Rhodes, the Obama campaign speechwriter, who in 2009 had been elevated to deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Also present was Tommy Vietor, whose entire career prior to NSC spokesman was as an Obama spinmeister—as a press aide in the 2004 Senate run, and campaign flack for the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and assistant White House press secretary. In fairness, his credentials also included getting caught on camera in 2010 pounding beers, shirtless, at a Georgetown bar. America's foreign-policy experts at work.
Not that Mr. Obama's first instinct is even to rely on his now overtly political NSC. This paper reported in September 2013 that as the White House struggled with the question of military intervention in Syria, it summoned all the old "Obama loyalists" for advice. They included his 2008 campaign manager ( David Plouffe ), his former press secretary ( Robert Gibbs ), a former speechwriter ( Jon Favreau ), and Mr. Vietor (who had by then left the NSC to form a political consulting group).
The result is that serious analysis has been replaced by political spin:
A serious-minded NSC, in the tumultuous aftermath of Benghazi, would have responded with a sober assessment for its president of the real and continued terror threat, and of the failings that resulted in four dead Americans. Instead we find the deputy NSA, Mr. Rhodes, crafting an internal email advising his colleagues to spin, and blame it all on an Internet video. Mr. Rhodes had no interest in advising the president on hard realities. His only interest was ensuring his boss got re-elected.
This same dynamic has guided the Afghanistan withdrawal, the Syria red line fiasco, and, no doubtm, the Bergdahl fiasco. It is one thing to let politics guide domestic policy, where the stakes are money and power, along with social policy. But in foreign policy we are ultimately talking abut the risk of war and the lives of our servicemen and women, and ultimately the security of the nation. Letting inexperienced hacks like Tommy (“Dude, that was likr two years ago…”) Vietor determine the conduct of the nation;’ affairs for crass political gain is a betrayal of the responsibilities Barack Obama sought and swore to serve.
Hat tip: Ed Lasky