Obama’s former Pentagon team defends Middle East record

On Tuesday, three former Pentagon officials, representing some of President Obama’s most-visible defense names during his first term, vigorously defended the administration’s Middle East accomplishments and attacked Mitt Romney’s criticisms of them. Former Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mideast Affairs Colin Kahl ...

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, three former Pentagon officials, representing some of President Obama's most-visible defense names during his first term, vigorously defended the administration's Middle East accomplishments and attacked Mitt Romney's criticisms of them.

Former Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mideast Affairs Colin Kahl all work for the Obama campaign now -- and each walked their own line between policy and partisanship at a Washington breakfast meeting for reporters.  

Flournoy sounded particularly heated in tossing rhetorical bombs about Romney's recent "bloopers" on Syria and his "distasteful" quick response to the Cairo protests that was "embarrassing for him." That's her current job, as co-chair of the campaign's national security advisors, but it's a marked contrast with the muted, future-defense-secretary tone she maintained while in office.

On Tuesday, three former Pentagon officials, representing some of President Obama’s most-visible defense names during his first term, vigorously defended the administration’s Middle East accomplishments and attacked Mitt Romney’s criticisms of them.

Former Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, former Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mideast Affairs Colin Kahl all work for the Obama campaign now — and each walked their own line between policy and partisanship at a Washington breakfast meeting for reporters.  

Flournoy sounded particularly heated in tossing rhetorical bombs about Romney’s recent "bloopers" on Syria and his "distasteful" quick response to the Cairo protests that was "embarrassing for him." That’s her current job, as co-chair of the campaign’s national security advisors, but it’s a marked contrast with the muted, future-defense-secretary tone she maintained while in office.

Wilson was the White House’s message man at the Pentagon, so it was less surprising to hear him accuse Romney of proffering "voodoo economics" in calling for 4 percent GDP spending on defense while cutting domestic spending, to include veterans programs.

Kahl picked apart Romney’s criticisms and laid out the case for why Obama’s approach to the Arab uprisings, and everything since, is the right one. Kahl has emerged from his role as mid-level DOD official to become a front-and-center national security voice for the campaign.

"We know from the secret-tape fundraiser in May, [Romney] was asked about the hostage crisis in Iran and he said, look, I will use these types of events to try to exploit them as we get close to the election," Kahl said. "He’s trying to change the subject."

"The problem is he’s not only doing it in a way that’s — it’s conspicuously trying to politicize things that are very serious, to include the death of our ambassadors. And then when he gets called out on it — you know, his book is called No Apologies, I think it should maybe be called Incapable of Apologies."

Kahl said, in essence, that there is no one-size fits all approach to the Middle East and that calling for a tougher stance against extremists is hardly a break from President Obama’s position.

"The reality is that in all of these places where you see unrest, it’s been a minority of a minority who have called for violence against the Americans. It hasn’t represented a majority," Kahl said, citing regional leaders who have called for calm. "And in Egypt, where the leadership waffled right off the bat, the president fired a shot across their bow."

Kahl said Obama’s comment on September 13 that Egypt is "not an ally" and the ensuing debate missed the point, which he argued is, "We’re in a wait-and-see moment about the strategic orientation of the new Egypt."

Of course, that is precisely the criticism of Obama — the waiting.

Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul offered the E-Ring this response: "The Obama campaign seems desperate to turn the public’s attention away from the unraveling of the President’s foreign policy. Angry crowds have stormed US embassies in several countries, tens of thousands have been killed by a brutal regime in Syria, Iran continues its march to a nuclear weapons capability, and terrorists have murdered a US ambassador."

"The world is a less safe place today than when President Obama took office and instead of offering a way forward, he is instead engaging in partisan attacks."

Kahl, however, pointed to Obama’s Sept. 13 phone conversation with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, after which Cairo dialed back the protests and ensured safety at the U.S. embassy.

"And by the way, that’s how you govern.  You don’t govern by, 15 seconds after an event happens, getting your facts wrong and firing before aiming. You govern by making sure you understand the facts right and understanding that appearing tough doesn’t mean you actually get good results."

Kahl attacked Romney’s criticism of Obama as wanting both more involvement and less across the Arab world. "At the end of the day, their political argument is: Look at this scary place, and if only you had tougher folks like the Republicans in charge, all these fears would go away. But there’s no substance to that argument."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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