The “big news” in U.S. foreign policy today, of course, is what is being called the personnel shakeup: Tom Donilon out as NSC Advisor, Susan Rice in from her UN post, and Samantha Power from the NSC staff to Turtle Bay. This is the kind of story the mainstream press can’t get enough of, because it aligns with the biographical “who’s up/who’s down” approach they love so well. Why do they love it so well? Because it has gossip appeal, and because it relieves the media types from actually having to understand any of the issues involved. As my old mentor, Owen Harries, used to put it, people love to read about “flaps and chaps”—scandals and personalities, translated out of Anglo-Welsh idiom—and the media caters to that base taste.
So what, if anything, does this musical-chairs episode mean for U.S. foreign policy in the second Obama Administration? The answer is that, absent inside information about the reasons for it—and I lack all such information—no one really knows. I make this point because our chatterati love to speculate about such things on the basis of logic. Who can blame them? I am about to do it, too, just for S’s and G’s. But the truth is that, once you’ve been on the inside and have actually seen how these kinds of decisions form and flow, you realize that logic is not a very reliable guide to knowledge. I have been present at the creation of a few such decisions, and when I read about them in the paper the next day or the next week, I have wondered if perhaps the reporter and I inhabited two different planets. Historians sometimes make the same assumption: that the most logical reason something happened is ipso facto the actual reason why it happened. Well, they do the best they can, at least when they have no axes to grind. But that is rare: “History is a discipline of aggregate bias”, wrote Tom Robbins in Another Roadside Attraction (1971), and even though he’s just a novelist, that doesn’t prevent him from being occasionally right.
None of this has stopped speculators from speculating, or stopped journalists from urging speculators to help them to fill airtime and column inches. Most of this stuff—not that I have had the stamina to read it all—is not very interesting. Susan Rice, a confidante of the President and someone said to be fond of elbow-throwing, is widely said to be sure to eclipse John Kerry in the pantheon of Obama Administration advisers. But how hard is that?
Many commentators, too, point to interesting times ahead in the confirmation hearings of Samantha Power (Susan Rice doesn’t need Senate confirmation to be NSC Advisor). So of course one wonders if the President and his political advisers are not savoring the prospect of a bunch of old white male Republicans seeming to want to savage a woman in pubic view. Now, isn’t that optic worth a hundred tilted television ads—and all for free? And since the President has already proclaimed his would-be (and outlandishly small-minded) legacy—Democratic seizure of the House in next year’s midterm elections—how can that be anything but appealing, realizing that certain Republican Senators are sure to “step in it” in their clueless effort to do the “right” thing?
The most fascinating commentary I’ve run across so far is a WSKG-NPR affair in which Judy Woodruff spoke with Anne-Marie Slaughter and Richard Haass. Anne-Marie Slaughter was Policy Planning Director in the first Obama Administration before returning to Princeton, and of course she knows both Rice and Power, since she worked for that “other” woman on the seventh floor of the State Department whom Power once referred to as “a monster.” Haass, whose name was yet again misspelled, has served in several Republican administrations, including as Policy Planning Director in the first George W. Bush Administration, and has been now for several years President of the Council on Foreign Relations.
I won’t belabor the entire interview, since Ms. Woodruff asked no interesting questions, but I will relate the climactic conclusion. Woodruff asked what these personnel changes say about the President, and Haass answered, very reasonably I think, as follows:
[H]e essentially wants to have around him the people who he knows best, who he has worked with as a senator, as a campaigner, as president. These are not outsiders, anything but. This is, if anything, this is a narrowing or tightening of the national security team at the White House.
To this, Slaughter responded:
Only a man can say this is the narrowing of the team. This is adding two important women to key positions in the White House in a way that I actually think is very important. These are more diverse voices right there. And, actually, although they do all know each other, I think there’s a broader range of views with Susan Rice and Samantha Power, with many of the other people who are in the White House.
This comment, aside from being highly unpersuasive and self-serving (since Slaughter wants to intervene in Syria and Haass doesn’t), is just downright bizarre—entirely over the top. Too bad Woodruff cut off the discussion at this point, denying Haass an opportunity to respond, or we would have perhaps had some real entertainment for a change.
No, pace Slaughter, these personnel changes are not the harbinger of a “broader range of views.” On the contrary, the removal of Donilon eliminates a voice of cautious realism, and turns management of the store over to the hawkiest of liberal hawks. And this is puzzling: Why would the President, whose body language and instincts, especially since the foolish decision to start a war in Libya, all point to restraint—as do, of course, his selections of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel to lead the State and Defense Departments—dump Donilon and elevate these two blood-on-the-saddle Quixotes? And why would he do this, after all has been said and done, when he has essentially sided with his Vice-President (Donilon’s patron and confidante) against all others over Afghanistan? It was Biden, pretty much alone, who argued back when for a drawdown of policy ambitions in Afghanistan—wanting a residual counterterrorist posture rather than a larger nation-building one. (And I have to say, after a career, going back to his entry into the Senate in 1972, of getting just about every major judgment wrong, Biden finally got a big one right.) And push come to shove after a several-year detour, the President now agrees. Point: The evidence out there suggests that the President has suffered from taking the advice of the liberal hawks within. So why elevate them?
Now, none of this means that the President has to accept advice he doesn’t agree with, and it doesn’t mean that he won’t continue to hear a range of views. Susan Rice’s job will be, in part, to play honest broker—making sure the President hears all sides of complex judgments—and there’s no reason to assume that she’ll bend the cards. Still, these changes are a little perplexing. Unless…
Let me repeat: I have no inside information about this, and one needs to distrust logic as a guide to assembling an account of motives. But I don’t see why I should be denied a little harmless fun. So here’s a yarn spun for you, dear readers, to contemplate.
John Kerry talks to the President some weeks back and says, hey, let me see if the Russians are finally ready to lean on Assad, so we can solve this mess in Syria without having to do anything kinetic. And the President says, sure, give it a shot; what do we have to lose? We’ve been playing diplomatic pantomime with the Russians for a while now, largely as a way not to have to do anything risky or effective, so what’s the diff? And Kerry thinks, I’m a new guy; I have a clean slate; Lavrov doesn’t detest me like he did my predecessor; maybe I can get something going here.
Ah, but what happens? Kerry goes and talks to Putin, and Putin turns out to be the better mime. Worse, as Kerry is leaving Putin and Lavrov kick him in the ass with prospects of new missile sales and deliveries to Assad, Hizballah and their thugs. The Russians then have the nerve to lecture us and the Europeans about the dangers of arming the rebels, even as they are pouring as much lethal stuff onto the battlefield as fast as they can, and advising, Chechnya-style, how the Syrians can murder their own citizens in Qusayr and Homs. And do the Europeans or we Americans publicly point out this outrageous exercise in hypocrisy? Of course not.
But Kerry is pissed. He knows he’s been diddled. He takes it personally. He realizes he’s in the process of being de-scrotumized before his first few months as Secretary are even finished. So he wants to go tell the President that we can’t let this pass; we have to do something. (I have already made my suggestion as to what that might be.) But Tom Donilon either stops him, or counters him, because he worries that an agitated Kerry is not really thinking straight. And so Kerry, pissed off now even more than before, tells the President: Boss, it’s either him or me—one of us has to go. And Obama knows right off that the politically less damaging person to sack is Donilon.
Does this mean, therefore, that U.S. policy toward Syria is about to change dramatically? Has the President been decisively swayed by convincing French evidence that the Assad regime has indeed used sarin—so that his red line now actually looks red to him rather than pale pink? Are Anne-Marie Slaughter and her two newly elevated female associates within about to get their hearts’ desire: a U.S.-led invasion of Syria, of one sort or another? Not necessarily. But maybe. Who knows? Not me.
All I know for sure is that future students of the history of U.S. foreign policy are going to have a helluva time keeping straight the fact that two different black women named Rice, one a stiletto-wearer, the other an elbow-thrower, served as NSC Advisor in the beginning of the 21st century. As if any of the rest of the story is going to make much sense to them.