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White House conference-call follies

There’s a good measure of disappointment in the foreign-policy community today that President Obama skimmed over some foreign-policy issues in his State of the Union speech and completely ignored many others. Was the White House intentionally trying to avoid making foreign-policy news or just not really thinking about it much at all? If the White ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

There's a good measure of disappointment in the foreign-policy community today that President Obama skimmed over some foreign-policy issues in his State of the Union speech and completely ignored many others.

Was the White House intentionally trying to avoid making foreign-policy news or just not really thinking about it much at all? If the White House conference call before the speech is any indication, it was the latter. Senior political officials briefing the speech to reporters Wednesday afternoon seemed completely unaware about what the speech would say on foreign policy and flippantly joked about the address's lack of foreign-policy substance.

When Jeff Mason of Reuters asked if China would come up in the speech, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had no idea. A few minutes later in the call, he came back with a fairly ridiculous answer.

There’s a good measure of disappointment in the foreign-policy community today that President Obama skimmed over some foreign-policy issues in his State of the Union speech and completely ignored many others.

Was the White House intentionally trying to avoid making foreign-policy news or just not really thinking about it much at all? If the White House conference call before the speech is any indication, it was the latter. Senior political officials briefing the speech to reporters Wednesday afternoon seemed completely unaware about what the speech would say on foreign policy and flippantly joked about the address’s lack of foreign-policy substance.

When Jeff Mason of Reuters asked if China would come up in the speech, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had no idea. A few minutes later in the call, he came back with a fairly ridiculous answer.

"China and a couple of other countries are mentioned in the context of needing to address our larger problems as we compete in a global economy," Gibbs said. "Google is not in the speech … neither is the new Google tablet."

Hardy har har, Robert. (By the way, it’s an Apple tablet.)

The New York Times’ Peter Baker asked about whether Obama would talk about the military’s ban on gays serving openly, the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that Obama campaigned on ending. Gibbs said "That will also be mentioned in the speech."

Baker pressed Gibbs for a better answer (as Gibbs again searched for the relevant paragraph).  "Is there any kind of commission or something specific in that, or is it a broad reiteration of his promise to [repeal the ban]?" Baker asked.

"It’s not a commission, it’s a broad reiteration," Gibbs responded. Honest enough; Obama ended up saying only: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do."

Overall, the briefers tried to portray the speech as celebrating progress on North Korea and Iran policy, which is odd, considering that both of these policies seem to be stalled with little progress to tout.

"On the foreign-policy side, we will discuss the efforts to create a broader coalition to take on the nuclear efforts of North Korea and Iran and how that over the past year has made doing that easier to do," Gibbs said.

Is that what the president discussed? You be the judge.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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