President Obama responds with contempt to advice from outside experts, an unattractive and self-sabotaging habit in a Commander-in-Chief, wrote Eliot Cohen in his column here at TAI on Tuesday. The same day, Politico came out with an exposé confirming the President’s unwillingness to listen on the issue of Syria—not only to outsiders, but also to those within his Administration, even at the highest levels. Here’s a damning paragraph:
Sources familiar with administration deliberations said that Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. The president’s most senior advisers — including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough — reflect the president’s wariness of escalated U.S. action related to Syria or Russia and, officials fear, fail to push Obama to question his own deeply rooted assumptions. “Susan and Denis channel him,” says a former administration official who has witnessed the dynamic.
Obama’s top advisors have pushed for more, but the President hasn’t listened yet:
In senior meetings, some of Obama’s top national security officials have pressed for a bolder response to Putin’s muscle-flexing in Syria. They include Kerry, who has argued for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, an option Obama recently suggested is “half-baked.”
A former Cold War nuclear deterrence expert, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has fretted that the U.S. isn’t standing up firmly to Putin’s provocations. And CIA Director John Brennan has complained that Putin is bombing Syrian rebel fighters covertly backed by his agency with seeming impunity.
Meanwhile, this lackadaisical policy has alienated Russia experts in the Administration:
Obama’s refusal to take firmer action against Moscow has increasingly isolated several of his administration’s Russia specialists, who almost uniformly take a harder line toward Putin than does the president himself. They include Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia; and Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Farkas’ recent announcement that she will exit the Obama administration this fall raised eyebrows among officials aware of her frustration that Obama hasn’t responded more forcefully to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (Farkas has told friends that she is not resigning over policy disputes.)
As one former adviser summed it up, “This is driven by one man, and one man only, and it is Barack Obama.”
The question is, what is that one man thinking? Eliot Cohen answers that question as best as one can outside of the President’s inner sanctum in that must-read column. As he says, just because the Administration probably won’t listen to the larger discussion of first-order problems that outside experts can and should conduct doesn’t mean those experts shouldn’t go forward with it. If nothing else, it will serve to prepare the next Administration, which one hopes will be more attentive. His contribution to that discussion is a great place to start.