- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
I had a bad Labor Day holiday, but my troubles don’t matter much. President Obama’s was decidedly worse, and unfortunately his matter a lot. The crucial thing, though, is that I know I had a bad couple of days. It is not clear to me that President Obama realizes that he did, and that should trouble all of us.
First, my tale of minor woes. I was in Washington for the Annual American Political Science Association meeting. Several thousand political science professors in the same hotel may sound like a lot of fun (or maybe it doesn’t) but it usually is not as eventful as it was this year.
Around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, we were all rousted out of bed because of a fire at the hotel. Reports are still pretty sketchy, but local firefighters and police told us that there was an arsonist who set several fires and was loose in the building over the course of the next six-plus hours. I had to be escorted to my room by the police to retrieve my bags to make my flight. In the end, fortunately, no one was hurt. (Some wounded pride aside, that is. It is hard to retain one’s dignity walking around in pajamas and nightgowns, and, alas, the image of some of my more distinguished colleagues in their bedclothes will haunt me for some time.)
Rounding out the weekend, I received a death threat after I presented at a panel on the National Security Agency. My remarks were not all that provocative (I will post them in a later piece), but they drove at least one troubled soul to send me a vicious email that the authorities found particularly disturbing.
So it was not my best couple days.
Still, it was a better holiday weekend than the president’s. The centerpiece was his "we have no strategy" press conference, for which he has been roundly criticized. It feels unsporting to pile on now to the primary line of critique: yes, the president gets points for being honest about the strategic disarray within the administration, but those points do not compensate for his failure to develop a coherent strategy for dealing with a threat that has been evident for many months.
In the midst of this, I have seen surprisingly little commentary on how the president’s gaffe reveals the dysfunction within the president’s vaunted communications’ team. It was a mistake to send the president out to speak in between major meetings (he spoke after one meeting and before another that was scheduled for later in the evening), because even if the president did have a coherent strategy, the time to announce it is after the meeting where they decide it, not before. There have been other own-goals like this in recent months — the decision to hype the prisoner swap that secured Bergdahl’s release was also a major self-inflicted wound — and while the WH spinners dismiss this as petty inside-the-beltway carping, what the own-goals have in common is that they mystify seasoned experts on both sides of the aisle. You do not have to be a partisan critic to see that the administration’s messaging efforts have made several bad situations worse. (Another possible common element is that they may reveal a staff to be dog-tired or have lost the ability to tell the boss hard truths.)
The president’s remarks amounted to a rebuke of his interagency team and it is a rebuke that at last some on the team do not appreciate. If the president wanted his team to tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, he could have told them that in private. Usually, a president reserves a public rebuke for when someone is about to be fired.
But that does not seem to be in the cards. In fact, over the weekend, as the White House swung into damage control, the dominant talking point was that there was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the president’s team bragged about the president’s great calmness under fire, as if what we have been observing is a virtuoso performance of the sort that would inspire Rudyard Kipling to wax poetic.
It is telling that the White House sent out the campaign spinners and not the foreign policy experts to sell this particular line. There are few serious experts with real experience in government willing to defend the President’s recent handling of foreign policy, and his own team — both the former members and, more strikingly, the current principals — have been clearly signaling that they are as dismayed by what is unfolding as are those of us watching from afar.
Which raises the obvious question. Does President Obama know that he and his team are struggling? Or does he believe the spin he sent the team out to offer this weekend? Some people much closer to the president than I am assure me that the president knows he has not done well, but others, particularly reporters who talk extensively with senior White House staff say they are not so sure.
The thought that the president really believes that the criticisms coming from all corners can just be dismissed as partisan sniping makes my bad couple days feel even worse.