Former Obama Defense Official Rosa Brooks: President Obama Is In Need Of An Intervention
Rosa Brooks, who served under President Obama as Counselor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and then Special Coordinator for Rule of Law and Humanitarian Policy, offered her former boss some long-overdue advice in her new Foreign Policy Magazine piece:
“[P]ush the foreign policy ‘reset’ button.”
In it, she recalls Obama’s principled vision for U.S. foreign policy during his 2008 campaign, which won over the American people and the world alike. It offered a fresh new worldview and policy platform that departed dramatically from his predecessor’s. She then contrasts that vision with where his foreign policy stands today — in shambles.
She highlights key regions that could be fairly portrayed as policy failures, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, China, Latin America, and Africa. On Obama’s expanding drone campaign, she describes “a counterterrorism strategy that has completely lost its bearings — we no longer seem very clear on who we need to kill or why.”
She lays these policy failures at Obama’s door, describing him as having been a “visionary candidate,” yet a President who “has presided over an exceptionally dysfunctional and un-visionary national security architecture — one that appears to drift from crisis to crisis, with little ability to look beyond the next few weeks.”
The United States, she says, “needs more than speeches and high-minded aspirations.” The President “needs to focus on strategy, structure, process, management, and personnel as much as on new policy initiatives.”
Brooks pulls no punches in her “intervention” attempt. She provides him with a 6-point plan of action to turn things around, should the American people grant him a second term.
A central theme that spans across many of these recommendations is a dysfunctional foreign policy team in which well-respected strategists and visionaries have been mostly replaced by inexperienced political hacks.
She describes an environment where:
- “The Strategic Planning Directorate has been reduced to a speech-writing shop.”
- The “National Security Staff (NSS) lacks the personnel or the depth of experience and expertise to be the primary font of policy.”
- “Nepotism trumps merit.”
- Cronyism “reigns supreme when it comes to determining who should attend White House meetings,” thereby shutting out dissenting voices, “along with the voices of specialists who could provide valuable information and insights.” This “guarantees uninformed group-think.”
- Two of Obama’s three gatekeepers, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and his Deputy Denis McDonough, are allegedly “jerks” and despise one another. “The nastiness demoralizes everyone and sends the message that rudeness and infighting are acceptable.”
She describes the President as someone who, like his predecessor, has withdrawn into a bubble. He is heavily shielded by gate-keepers, rarely attends press conferences or interacts with members of Congress, never calls anyone.
She encourages him to implore staffers to play devil’s advocate — to challenge the polices that Obama and his close circle plan to pursue, if only to highlight their weaknesses, and to make those who have his ear actually have to defend them. In short, Obama needs more dissenting opinions in the room.
Perhaps her harshest critique of the President is one which many of his earliest supporters have long complained about: Obama lacks a backbone.
President Obama has sound moral instincts, but he often backs away from them at the first sign of resistance. He came into office with a mandate and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. Had he been willing to use some political capital — and twist a few arms on the Hill — in those early months, Guantanamo would be closed, and the United States might have a more coherent approach to national security budgeting. But on these and other issues, the president backed off at the first sign of congressional resistance, apparently deciding (presumably on the advice of the campaign aides who already populated his national security staff) that these issues were political losers.
Of course, it was a self-fulfilling prophesy; the issues became losers because the White House abandoned them. Ultimately, Congress began to view him as weak: a man who wouldn’t push them very hard. As a result, Congress pushed back hard on everything, including health care, economic stimulus, and regulation of the financial industry, and Obama was forced to live with watered-down legislation across the board.
If he gets a second term, Obama needs to start thinking about his legacy, and that will require him to fight for his principles, not abandon them. Even if he fights, he won’t win every battle — but if he doesn’t fight, he won’t win any.
Stagecraft: Our Presidential Contest Has Devolved Into Little More Than A Fake Wrestling Match
For those on the Left, one of the most frustrating aspects of this Presidential election has been following the narratives of both establishment parties, each aligned with the other in their complimentary fictions, as they deceive the American voters into believing there is an actual choice to be made here.
Beyond the rhetorical divide, the actual differences between Obama and Romney are minor, if not downright trivial. Each candidate, regardless of how he has actually governed in the past, uses the talking points from his party’s platform to tap into the ideological preferences of his base. The contest is little more than a theater of deception.
Romney, who governed like a Clintonian Democrat, now speaks in ways that appeal to his base, which continues to drift rightwards a la Tea Party.
As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney implemented what would become the blueprints for Obamacare, and offered generous subsidies for those in his state who couldn’t afford it. He embraced a pro-choice position, favored gun control, was pro-gay-rights. He opposed the flat tax, was critical of Bush tax cuts. He believes in global warming, and has supported ‘cap and trade’ policies.
Whereas Romney has been forced to move rhetorically to the right, Barack Obama, who himself has governed from right-of-center, needs to reestablish his own cred with his liberal base, and is thus, only too happy to accommodate Romney in aligning their fictions.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle that both candidates have had to overcome with regards to their respective bases is in trying to convince them that there actually are fundamental differences between their visions for America’s economic model.
The Obama campaign was the first to seize on a distinction when it released a video showing Mitt Romney at a Boca Raton fundraiser expressing disdain for Obama voters, suggesting they are “dependent upon government” and feel entitled to handouts.
But this video revelation actually enhanced the far-Right cred that the Governor had been so desperate for. You might think his own campaign planted the video. In fact, he proudly wore the video revelation around like a medal. The Tea Party won’t see me as a RINO anymore, he likely surmised.
Seeing this as the perfect red meat issue needed to re-energize his base, Romney pivoted to the hot-button ‘Socialism’ charge. He charged Obama with being another Socialist-minded liberal who wants to take money from those who work hard and succeed, to then redistribute it to those who don’t.
“He [Obama] really believes in what I’ll call a government-centered society. I know there are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America,” Romney said Wednesday at an Atlanta fundraiser. “There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago where the president said yes he believes in redistribution. I don’t. I believe the way to lift people and help people have higher incomes is not to take from some and give to others but to create wealth for all.”
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus seconded that description of Obama, and now all GOP surrogates are on message, making the ‘redistribution’ buzzword the central theme in Romney’s campaign.
But of course this depiction of Obama couldn’t be further from the truth. Obama has actually governed like a starry-eyed Milton Friedman disciple. Bloomberg News decided to investigate Romney’s ‘redistribution’ charge, and here is what they found:
If President Barack Obama is trying to spread the wealth, he doesn’t have much to show for it. […]
[S]ince Obama took office in January 2009, wealthy Americans have continued to pull away from the rest of society. In the aftermath of the recession, income inequality in the U.S. reached a new high in 2011, Census Bureau data show.
Even as the president has decried the hollowing out of the middle class, the fortunes of labor and capital have diverged on his watch. Quarterly corporate profits of $1.9 trillion have almost doubled since the end of 2008, while workers’ inflation- adjusted average hourly earnings have declined.
“At the very high end, people got a whole lot wealthier whereas income stagnated at other levels,” said Anne Mathias, director of Washington research for Guggenheim Securities LLC. “Fifty years ago, people talked about the other half, how the other half lived, and now we’re talking about the other 1 percent.”
But, forget reality — back to the fantasyland that is our Presidential Election.
Knowing his progressive base sees the U.S. economy through the 1% vs 99% prism and views his last 3 1/2 years as a monumental sellout to the 1%, Obama likely sees an opening in Romney’s ‘redistribution’ charge. This Republican accusation may be exactly what he needs to energize his own base. Perhaps it can help him to get his populist mojo back.
And the theater just continues on and on …
But make no mistake about it, whichever candidate wins — be it Obama or Romney — things will continue right along this Neoliberal road we are on, and the firmly-entrenched 1% will have their man.
Edit: In response to reader who questioned the validity of statement re: Mitt Romney’s alleged support of gay-marriage when Governor of Massachusetts, and after further review myself, I have decided to remove the statement: (he implemented same-sex marriage by executive fiat).
President Obama’s Appearance on 60 Minutes: The Good And The Bad
President Obama and Governor Romney both appeared on 60 Minutes last night in what is being billed as an indirect debate between the two candidates. They interviewed separately, but both used it as an opportunity to level some attacks at one another and to defend themselves against the other’s talking points.
Here are some of the things that struck me about Obama’s performance:
1. The Good
The President subtly distinguished U.S. interests from Israels’:
The President cleverly addressed Steve Kroft’s question regarding Israel PM Netanyahu’s blatant attempts to force the U.S. into war with Iran. Kroft asked him about the pressure being leveled at him during the U.S. elections (a time when a sitting President is most likely to placate deep-pocketed special interest groups). Obama appropriately recast the issue to the interests of the American people.
Although this tact might seem logical and obvious to most Americans — A U.S. President putting U.S. interests above those of a foreign government’s — anyone who follows the Israel / Palestine issue closely, knows this is practically unheard of in Washington, and actually constitutes bravery:
Kroft: How much pressure have you been getting from Prime Minister Netanyahu to make up your mind to use military force in Iran?
Obama: Well, look, I have conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu all the time. And I understand and share Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon because it would threaten us, it would threaten Israel and it would threaten the world and kick off a nuclear arms race.
Kroft: You’re saying you don’t feel any pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu in the middle of a campaign to try and get you to change your policy and draw a line in the sand? You don’t feel any pressure?
Obama:When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there. Now I feel an obligation, not pressure but obligation, to make sure that we’re in close consultation with the Israelis on these issues because it affects them deeply. They’re one of our closest allies in the region. And we’ve got an Iranian regime that has said horrible things that directly threaten Israel’s existence.
Later in the interview, Kroft brought up Romney’s assertion that Obama was weak on national defense and foreign policy, saying that he “needed to be more aggressive on Iran, he hadn’t done enough to support the revolt in Syria, and that our ‘friends’ don’t know where we stand, and our enemies think we’re weak.” To which Obama replied:
Well, let’s see what I’ve done since I came into office. I said I’d end the war in Iraq, I did. I said that we’d go after al-Qaeda. They’ve been decimated… That we’d go after Bin Laden, he’s gone. So, I’ve executed on my foreign policy, and it’s one the American people agree with. So, if Governor Romney is suggesting we should start another war, he should say so.
Essentially, Obama is turning Romney’s pro-Israel hawkishness around on him, by reminding Americans that war is too important an issue to be championing for mere political expediency. That committing the United States to another unnecessary war in the Middle East, once again driven by fear mongering, would hold severe repercussions for U.S. interests.
2. The Bad
The President was unapologetic about his overarching Neoliberal policies. In fact he bragged about them:
Kroft told Obama that Romney has framed him as someone who doesn’t have a clue about the economy. That he doesn’t understand “that private enterprise is the engine of growth in this country, and that’s what creates jobs, not big government.” And that Obama is “crushing economic freedom with taxes, regulations, and high-cost health care.” Instead of taking issue with Romney’s Neoliberal ideology, he rejected Romney’s depiction of him as someone unkind to Neoliberal values.
Despite all the debt created by George W. Bush’s deep tax cuts, at a time we were engaged in two costly wars, Obama highlighted that he himself has been the true tax-cutter:
Taxes are lower on families than they’ve been probably in the last 50 years. So, I haven’t raised taxes, I have cut taxes for middle class families by an average of $3,600 for a typical family.
And after all the calamity in our economy created by Bush’s deregulatory policies, Obama still touted his own non-regulatory record as more brazen than Bush’s, as if that is something to be proud of:
When it comes to regulations, I issued fewer regulations than my predecessor George W. Bush did during that same period in office. So it’s hard to say I over-regulated.
When Kroft asked him how he will get obstructionist Republicans to agree to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, Obama used it as an opportunity to tout his austerity credentials, and the Grand Bargain he plans once reelected:
Ultimately the American people agree with me. The only way to bring down our deficit is in a balanced way. So, keep in mind, I’ve agreed with the Republicans, and we’ve already cut a trillion dollars of spending. And I’ve told them I’m prepared to do additional spending cuts, and do some entitlement reform.
But what I’ve said is, you can’t ask me to make student loans higher for kids who need it, or ask seniors to pay more for Medicare, or throw people off of healthcare, and not ask somebody like me or Mr. Romney to do anything. Not ask us to do a single dime’s worth of sacrifice?
Parse that again carefully. He doesn’t promise that young Americans WILL NOT be asked to pay more for student loans, or that seniors WILL NOT be asked to pay more for Medicare. He states you can’t ask these people to suffer even more, unless you also ask the wealthy, like him and Romney, to pay more in taxes.
This is a very significant point. He is willing to cut a Grand Bargain that will further harm those least capable of contributing financially, IF ONLY Republicans will agree that the rich need to toss a bit more tip money into the till. Because to Obama and the rest of the elite establishment this “shared sacrifice” between the “haves” and “have-nothing-to-spares” somehow constitutes a “balanced approach.”
Kroft pointed out that the housing crisis led to Obama bailing the banks out, and yet he decided that very few homeowners should be helped with mortgage-relief. Obama responded by touching on a few things he did do, but mostly distinguished his “modest” approach from Romney’s approach:
[…] We still have a long ways to go, but this is in contrast to Governor Romney’s proposal. When asked about what we should be doing with the housing market, [Romney] said, “Just let it bomb out.” That’s a quote. So, he was opposed to even the modest proposals we put into place.
So, instead of flogging his predecessor and Governor Romney for their irresponsible ideological beliefs, Obama attempted to out-‘W’ them, as if Bush’s Neoliberal economic policies were something to strive for, if not to exceed. In making the points above, Obama gives us a glimpse into his true economic compass, which deeply contradicts the policy platform he ran on in 2008.
Yes, his appointments of Neoliberal Wall Streeters and the policies he championed since he was elected have already confirmed that candidate Obama was a fraud, but it is interesting to see him four years later honestly aligning his rhetoric with his preferred policies.
The long-term damage done in propagating these sorts of pro-Neoliberal messages to the American public — that laissez-faire, non-regulatory, no-tax, pro-austerity policies are credible, responsible and commendable — only works to lend legitimacy to these long-failed policies, which now lie at the heart of our nation’s deep structural economic problems.
Who knows, before long, in order to prove his pro-business mettle, Obama might even begin to boast about his NAFTA-like trade deals (the kinds he panned as a candidate in 2008), and how they’ll help U.S. corporations be more competitive, by encouraging them to lay off Americans and outsource their operations to low labor-cost countries.
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