Presidents in political trouble tend to resist change, mainly because they convince themselves of their wisdom. Ronald Reagan once declared that he would “stay the course” on his economic policies when short-term pain caused his approval rating to tumble--and even before the 1984 election arrived, economic growth proved him correct.
Bill Clinton refused to resign after admitting to perjury in a civil lawsuit, and eventually the public forgave him and punished Republicans for attempting to remove him from office. George W. Bush doubled down on his Iraq strategy with the “surge,” and although the political damage from Iraq’s decline in 2006-7 did plenty of damage, the strategy worked to end a nascent civil war by 2008.
When the improvements don’t materialize, Presidents tend to start looking for new talent. Bush’s surge strategy was preceded by the resignation of the unpopular Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and crafted by his replacement Robert Gates. Cabinet members and White House staffers are almost always expendable when the boss needs a boost, a way to signal a change of direction that implies a shift in blame to those departing.
Barack Obama is in trouble now, but in part because the opposite has happened. Gates and his successor Leon Panetta, both widely respected across the political spectrum, have published memoirs of their years in the Obama administration, and they have spared no feelings with their former commander in chief.
Combined with a somewhat milder rebuke from Hillary Clinton’s memoirs, we have the unusual specter of having three members of the president’s national-security team blaming Obama for not listening to their advice on national security while the President is still in office.
Needless to say, this comes at a bad time for Obama. He has spent all year watching his approval ratings decline, especially on national-security issues over the last few months. Americans have the impression that Obama has not paid attention to the threat of ISIS, having dismissed them as “jayvees” in January, while at the same time Congress heard from intelligence officials that ISIS was poised to seize large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Panetta’s book confirms what Obama’s critics have said all along – that the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq created the vacuum for ISIS to arise.
That wasn’t the only area in which both Panetta and Clinton criticized Obama. Both memoirs recounted issues with Obama ignoring their advice on Syria starting in 2011 with the Arab Spring revolts. Both advised Obama to start arming moderate rebels then in order to bolster their chances of withstanding the radical Islamists that began flocking to the civil war against Bashar al-Assad. Obama refused, and then in 2013 retreated from a threat to attack Assad over the use of chemical weapons. Without support from the US, both argue in their books, the Free Syrian Army turned into an afterthought as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra took over the rebellion – and ISIS became powerful enough to declare a caliphate.
Like many other presidents looking at a collapse in confidence among voters, Obama has signaled that he will clean house after the midterm elections. David Ignatius writes for The Washington Post that the President has become “interested in a talent infusion that would add depth and experience,” which his current team lacks.
Chuck Hagel, Panetta’s successor at the Pentagon, had no command experience and no executive experience before taking charge at the Pentagon, but with whom Ignatius sympathizes, saying that Hagel got “tarnished” by a confirmation process that exposed his lack of substance. Similarly, Ignatius defends national security adviser Susan Rice (“still suffers from unfair attacks over the Benghazi affair”), the first-time diplomat in Secretary of State John Kerry (“tireless advocate for Obama’s policies”), and CIA Director John Brennan.
Ignatius’ defense of Brennan is rather comical. Brennan, Ignatius writes, is “an experienced Arabist who can frame Middle East strategy, but he was wounded by an unfortunate fight with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the intelligence committee.” That “unfortunate fight” started when Feinstein wanted to look into CIA activities during the Bush administration, and CIA officials spied on the Senate committee. Brennan should have been cashiered for that.
In fact, with the collapse of Obama’s policies in the Middle East, and with Kerry’s ostentatious and utterly unsuccessful efforts to force Israel and the Palestinians into a peace accord, it’s a wonder that any of Obama’s current national-security team is still around. That applies to James Clapper as well, the director of national intelligence who deliberately misled Congress about the NSA’s activities in domestic snooping, and then admitted that his analysts missed just how badly the Iraqi military would perform against ISIS – no small matter, considering the billions of dollars we spent in training and equipping them. But the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy and confidence in his leadership should have the jobs of some or all of the above on the chopping block.
On the other hand, maybe Obama is worried about what they’ll write about him if he hands them their walking papers.
In the end, though, the personnel changes – if they come at all – won’t likely have much impact. When George Bush asked for Rumsfeld’s resignation, it was because Bush had followed Rumsfeld’s advice, for better and worse, and knew a new direction was needed. Reagan asked chief of staff Donald Regan to resign during the Iran-Contra scandal because Reagan needed a new hatchet man to handle the crisis.
A fresh team won’t have the same value in this case. As Panetta, Clinton, and Gates make clear in their memoirs, Obama wasn’t taking their advice anyway. It’s likely that he’s not listening to his current team any more than his previous team, except to the extent that they tell Obama what he wants to hear. The problem is, and has been, the man in the Oval Office.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times:
- Why Obama Should Never Have Sent Troops to Fight Ebola
- The Blood Feud Between Reid and the Kochs Boils Over
- How Other Countries Are Preparing to Stop Ebola