Daniel W. Drezner

The Schmoozing Paradox

The Schmoozing Paradox

My FP column this month is about the Obama administration’s ham-handed relations with U.S. allies.  Why has a president so dedicated to restoring America’s standing abroad pissed off so many allies? 

[Keeping allies in the loop] isn’t just a presidential activity — it encompasses the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus, from the secretary of state to the national security advisor to the Pentagon. But in order to consult properly with allies, each of these bureaucracies needs to be familiar with exactly what U.S. intentions are in a particular situation.

The reason that consulting with allies has gone so badly is that it’s far from clear that the White House consults all that much with the rest of the executive branch. On Syria, for example, Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization to use force in Syria took his own staff by surprise — not to mention Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. According to the New York Times, the new U.S. strategy in the Middle East came from a policy review conducted by National Security Advisor Susan Rice and "a tight group that included no one outside the White House." Obama and his staff insist that the White House didn’t know the extent of NSA surveillance on foreign leaders, which not only beggars belief but begs the question — maybe it would have been good to ask? As Dana Milbank snarked, "For a smart man, President Obama professes to know very little about a great number of things going on in his administration."

Of course the observation that Obama seems bad at communicating with other politicos is hardly unique to foreign affairs.  Indeed, as Kevin Drum noted last month:

[I]t seems like much of this is an example of what Bill Clinton says he eventually learned about foreign policy: that it’s basically the same as domestic policy. Everyone has their own interests, and you just need to keep plugging away at it. Unfortunately, this is, by common consensus, Obama’s worst trait. He doesn’t schmooze much with domestic leaders and he doesn’t schmooze much with foreign leaders either. This is why all these stories about our foreign policy travails spend at least as much time talking about feelings as they do about actual policies. Foreign allies feel dismissed; they feel unconsulted; they feel like no one in the White House really understands their needs….

Obama is almost certainly suffering more from the latest round of disclosures than he would if he were a bit friendlier and chattier with his peers across the world. Unfortunately, that’s not his style.

Now, as it turns out, there is one group that Obama does like to schmooze with.  According to Politico’s Dylan Byers: 

President Barack Obama is often accused of being insular. He’s not a schmoozer. He doesn’t like meeting with lawmakers, and he doesn’t particularly care for talking to reporters, either.

But get him in an off-the-record setting with a small group of opinion columnists — the David Brooks and E.J. Dionne types — and he’ll talk for hours.

“He likes the intellectual sparring element of it,” a source familiar with the president’s thinking told POLITICO. “He likes talking to reasonable adversaries.”

He also likes talking to the people he likes to read. The president is a voracious consumer of opinion journalism. Most nights, before going to bed, he’ll surf the Internet, reading the columnists whose opinions he values. One of the great privileges of the presidency is that, when so inclined, he can invite these columnists to his home for meetings that can last as long as two-and-a-half hours.

“It’s not an accident who he invites: He reads the people that he thinks matter, and he really likes engaging those people,” said one reporter with knowledge of the meetings. “He reads people carefully — he has a columnist mentality — and he wants to win columnists over,” said another.

Hmm…. maybe Obama would be better at consulting with allies if the foreign affairs columnists he schmoozed with told him to consult more with allies. 

So who does Obama invite among the foreign policy commentariat?  Let’s see, according to Byers, there’s, David Ignatius, Jeffrey Goldberg, Tom Friedman, and…. uh… that’s it.  Truthfully, that’s not such a bad group.  It’s terrifically small, however. 

[This is just a massive throat-clearing exercise by you to wrangle an schmoozing invite, isn’t it?–ed.  So, three things:  A) My day job ain’t being a columnist; B) I don’t live in DC, so it’s not like I could accept; and C) It’s not like Obama is a huge fan of bloggers — though this might be due to pure envy.]

The problem I have is in trying to figure out who else to add to the list.  The sad truth is that there ain’t a ton of people whose primary job is to write a mainstream foreign affairs column.  Nick Kristof?  Fred Kaplan?  The rest of the Washington Post crew?  It’s a very thin bench. 

So, to sum up:  we’re in a world where the only cluster of people that the president of the United States wants to engage with are columnists.  And the United States is a country that doesn’t care about foreign affairs… hence there are very few foreign affairs columnists. 

Am I missing anything?