By Other Means

A Washington apology

A Washington apology

I am an exceptionally poor crystal ball reader, so I have been a little taken aback by the amount of comment, both positive and negative, provoked by my column on the dysfunctionality of the Obama foreign policy team.

In the column, I quoted Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, who told a reporter: "The truth is, Obama doesn’t call anyone, and he’s not close to almost anyone. It’s stunning that he’s in politics, because he really doesn’t like people." I should note that she later issued an apology, via Twitter: "I was trying to say how President Obama, who I admire greatly, is a private person, but I deeply regret how I said it. I apologize."

In that spirit, I can’t resist offering my own official apology (it’s too long to tweet):

I recently wrote a column in which I might have appeared to be highly critical of certain senior White House officials. I might also have implied that the word "jerks" could be applicable. This was a poor choice of words, and I regret it deeply. What I was trying to say is that I admire the National Security Advisor greatly and consider him a fine leader. The same goes for those other jerks, too.

I think I’m getting better at the Washington apologies game. No doubt I will have many further opportunities to practice it in the days to come.

More seriously: there truly are many dedicated and talented people working in the Obama administration, including on the National Security Staff, and nothing I have written is intended to disparage their work or their hard-won achievements, many of which are invisible to the public.  

However, I wouldn’t have written the piece if I didn’t know that my concerns and criticisms are widely shared by many inside the administration. Not universally shared, to be sure, but widely. Thanks to those of you who have offered anecdotes and analysis, or have sent friendly emails and tweets my way.  I appreciate it, and hope that those in a position to do so will make their own views public. (I’m happy to put up guest posts on this blog, including anonymous posts if circumstances seem to justify it.) I also hope — probably vainly — that some of this discussion reaches the president, and that he takes the critical comments to heart. He can do a lot better than he’s doing now.

A few of my friends have chastised me for my timing, arguing that however on-target my criticisms may be, I am undermining the president’s chances of re-election by voicing these criticisms now. Would that I were influential enough to sway the election through a single column!  But that fantasy aside, I don’t think helping the president get re-elected is a columnist’s job.

I was fortunate to hold a job as a political appointee in President Obama’s administration from spring 2009 to summer 2011, and more fortunate still to have worked at the Defense Department for Michèle Flournoy, a gifted defense intellectual and a superb leader and manager — who bears no responsibility for anything foolish I say. (The smart stuff, I learned from her.) Inevitably, working for someone so talented made the relative dysfunction at the White House stand out even more glaringly. But during my time as a political appointee, I did precisely what political appointees are supposed to do: I worked hard to advance the president’s agenda, and in public I always tried to stick loyally to the White House talking points, even when I privately disagreed.

But I stopped being a political appointee well over a year ago, and there’s got to be some statute of limitations on hewing to the party line. At the moment, I’m a private citizen, an academic, and a writer. As a personal matter, I sincerely hope the president is re-elected: his foreign policy, imperfect though it is, remains a great deal saner than Mitt Romney’s proposed policies, and I’d vote for Obama anyway on domestic policy grounds. But I think that parroting White House talking points is his campaign’s job, not mine.

That said, it is certainly fair to complain that my column made only a glancing reference to the Obama administration’s foreign policy successes, which are no less real than the failures. In an effort to keep the column from getting too long, I cut several paragraphs I had initially written on the administration’s foreign policy wins. I should have left them in, since I see that the result looks more lopsided than intended. For that, I truly do apologize.

Next week, I plan to write something on Mitt Romney’s foreign policy proposals, and the initiatives likely to spring from the fevered minds of the advisers who surround him. In that context, I’ll try to also highlight the many things that are good about Obama’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, I will hunker down quietly and await divine vengeance. Please send suggestions, compliments and vilifications to me here.