From Messiah to Mediocrity

How a constitutional scholar became a "just trust me" pol.

Few of the speeches President Barack Obama has delivered during his tenure in office illustrate his transformation from messiah to mediocrity, a middle of the pack president likely to fit in somewhere between Rutherford B. Hayes and Martin Van Buren, quite as well as his tepid, inadequate, and something-for-everyone but much-less-than-meets-the-eye speech on NSA reforms on Friday. At just the moment when the country needed the constitutional scholar who was bold enough to speak truth to power -- the man who many of us thought we were electing in 2008 and then again in 2012 -- we instead got the wobbly, vague, "trust me" of a run-of-the-mill pol.

The great flaw within the president's remarks was not its inadequate details nor the issues it left unaddressed or punted off into an indefinite future. Nor was it the fact that he left the specifics of the implementation of many of the "reforms" to the judgment of many of the same folks who created the problem he was addressing. Rather the president, once again, sent the message that at least until he leaves office, he would like us to embrace the idea that personality is more important than principle in U.S. policymaking. In other words, he sought to reassure his supporters and critics (who are understandably worried about government overreach and the violation of civil liberties and wary of policies driven more by fear-mongering than prudent perspective), by more or less saying, "Don't worry, I'm a good guy, I'll make sure that all the big decisions that get made will be OK." 

Quite apart from the fact that wave upon wave of Snowden-fed revelation belies that argument, it ignores a central truth that the constitutional scholar should recognize. Our country was founded on clear limits being placed on the power of government because for all the generations of good and earnest leaders we may have or have had, our planet's history and human nature tell us we must protect against those who might someday abuse their power. 

Among the president's "reforms" announced in his speech was a plan to shift the storage of collected data to a third-party host and to require that government agencies receive court approval before accessing this database. Of course, we know how well third-party entities manage their responsibilities and preserve what should be secure (look at Booz and Snowden). And while seeking court approval is a good step -- as required by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution -- if the court in question is the never-met-a-request-they-didn't-like FISA court, it's roughly like leaving the Kardashians to adjudicate national standards of chastity.

In his speech the president raised the hopes of those seeking more protection for individual rights by proposing the creation of a privacy panel to consult with the court. But that provision was compromised by the qualification that in his proposal the panel will only address "novel" issues, meaning that once the court has agreed that certain types of searches are legal, then all future cases that can be analogized to be the same (and thus not novel) will be fair game.

On international snooping, there appear to be only a couple of dozen clear winners -- a handful of heads of state of allied and friendly governments who from now will no longer be subjected to surveillance. The cabinet colleagues of these leaders? Still fair game. Staff? OK to eavesdrop on them. Families? Why not? Legislators? Military leaders? Police forces? Of course. As far as the rights of international citizens go, the president said we will set new guidelines. Does that mean less poking around in text messages or email accounts of tens of millions of foreigners? Not necessarily. The only assurance is that the United States will only store this information for a shorter period of time. Though how much time that will be remains unclear.

What happened to the vast array of recommendations of the president's council set up to assess our surveillance programs? Listening to the speech, most were punted, unaddressed or addressed by creating vague new processes that still leave open plenty of opportunity for abuse. And for those who argue (as many current and former top intelligence officials have) that there have not been any proven cases of abuse of the surveillance powers, the response must be, to many reasonable Americans and foreign citizens, that simply accessing private data qualifies as an abuse. Further, as noted above, the critical factor in weighing whether such programs should continue is not whether abuse has taken place, but whether under the rules and processes we establish, it someday could. The possibility of abuse is what drives the establishment of constitutional limitations of government power, not the proof of past abuses.

The weakness of the president's arguments shone through most strongly when he sought to pour oil upon the waters with the assertion that we, the United States, are not Russia or China. Talk about setting a low bar for a country that views itself as being a light unto the nations of the world. We aren't, the president said soothingly, as bad as two authoritarian societies founded on the ideas that individual rights and liberties take a back seat to the needs (and whims) of the state and its bosses.

I do not doubt that the president is troubled by many of the fundamental questions raised by the current surveillance debate. Indeed, listening to and reviewing his remarks, I could not help but be reminded of the comment former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made in his book when he wondered whether the president really supported his own Afghanistan policy. I'm sure the president is walking not one but several fine lines here: Between his principles and his desire to provide for the security of the American people, between his core constituency on the left and those upon whom he must depend in the intelligence and national security community, between his advisors pushing for reform and those urging he not go too far. He, as president, is also acutely and uniquely aware of the risks facing the United States and surely, does not wish to implement changes that might somehow enhance those risks or might open him to criticism should some attack come to pass.

Those are all reasons that balanced, thoughtful deliberation is wise in such circumstances. But the difference between a strong leader and just an average one is that after such deliberations, the strong leaders hew to principle and the long-term interests of their people and make bold and decisive choices when necessary, even if those choices open them up to political attack. 

In this instance, a president who was elected to undo the errors of his predecessor in overreacting to the attacks of 9/11 by launching three massive wars -- one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and one against terrorists worldwide -- has not only bungled the execution of each such desired reversal, he has produced a world in which our enemies and the chaos that serves them are now regaining strength. And where he should have sought to undo the mentality that led to the creation of those misguided and mishandled wars -- the fear-driven overstatement of the risks we face -- he not only failed, he has succumbed. He oversaw and accepted the expansion of the NSA's programs based on the logic that because a single bad actor could duplicate the devastation of 9/11, everyone everywhere effectively became a potential threat. We went from a bi-polar world in which we had one primary enemy, into not a unipolar world but into an apolar one in which our potential adversaries numbered in the thousands or even millions. Only such an analysis could warrant the shift of our intelligence community from its targeted approaches of the Cold War to the more wholesale, scattershot, limit-lite approaches of today. 

Obama didn't change the government as he was elected to do, he was changed by it. Perhaps that was inevitable. And no doubt some of the change was informed by new knowledge. But he sold his training and seeming previous values as well as those of his core supporters short. He should have given a speech today embracing and promising to implement the changes recommended by the smart, dedicated public servants on his surveillance council with immediacy and transparency. He should have said the NSA would do just fine if it played by the same, quite flexible rules followed by say, the CIA -- reporting missions and programs to Congress, and the FBI, working with courts to win wiretaps when needed. He should have said that metadata is clearly covered by the Fourth Amendment and vowed to have the administration file a brief in pending court cases supporting that view. He should have said that Americans and others worldwide had a right to privacy, one that must to be protected, even if it means slightly increasing the risk of the possibility of an occasional attack. (And there is debate about how effective many of the NSA's programs are.) He should have said that our focus ought to be not on what we fear but on what we value, on preserving the freedoms our forefathers fought to protect rather than compromising them in the hopes of protecting us against that which we cannot expect to ever eradicate. The way to fight terrorists is to focus on resilience and systematic, targeted efforts to go after known bad actors. Not with misguided invasions of sovereign powers nor with misguided violations of sovereign or individual rights worldwide. That is not to say we won't spy or shouldn't. We must and will. Rather it is to recognize that the limits we place on programs like the surveillance efforts of the NSA are as important to protecting us from future threats as are the programs themselves. 



Head in the Sand

How many more tell-all memoirs will it take for the president to admit that it's not working?

Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan wrote the soundtrack to my early childhood. You know the stuff. Seeger, sorrowful and mellifluous: "Where have all the flowers gone?"  Dylan, querulous and un-mellifluous: "How many times must the cannonball fly?"

From this you can probably deduce that I was a child of the American Left, of which little is now left. Even so, from time to time I still find myself humming a few bars of a Seeger or Dylan song under my breath. I don't mean to. I don't even want to. It just happens.

I had several such moments as I read former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's new memoir, Duty. Maybe that's because Gates -- whom no one would describe as a leftie, past or present -- takes a stance on war that's not so far removed from the one taken by my anti-war parents in the early 1970s.  Each time he visited U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Gates recalls, he found himself "enveloped by a sense of misery and danger and loss." American policy, he asserts, has become perilously over-militarized; "the use of force [is] too easy for presidents." But viewed up close -- far from the "antiseptic offices" of the White House or the CIA -- war is never anything but "bloody and horrible," and its costs are measured in "lives ruined and lives lost."

Nodding along as I read, I found myself humming softly to myself. [Cue "Down by the Riverside."] Gates ain't gonna stu-dy … war … no more.

Which is just as well, since President Barack Obama ain't gonna hire Gates no more.  While his book is substantially more nuanced than early press accounts acknowledged, he is largely uncomplimentary toward the Obama White House. Gates was repelled by what he saw as the White House's "aggressive, suspicious, and sometimes condescending and insulting" attitude toward the uniformed military. But while much comment on Gates's memoir has understandably focused on his account of the tortured state of civil-military relations, his critique of the president's inner circle in fact goes far deeper.

Gates describes a White House populated by political hacks with little substantive foreign-policy knowledge, little understanding of how the executive branch works, and less humility. He recalls Jim Jones, Obama's first national security advisor, complaining to him and to Hillary Clinton that White House staffers were "advising the president on foreign-policy issues that they knew nothing about." Similarly, Gates recalls his own "chagrin" when Obama dispatched National Security Council (NSC) Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to check up on military efforts to aid earthquake-stricken Haiti. "I considered NSC involvement -- or meddling -- in operational affairs anathema," he observes. "I had nothing personal against McDonough," but "such staffers are almost always out of their depth."

That's the polite critique. Gates is often less polite: Obama's NSC took "micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level," frequently leaving Gates "fed up" -- and occasionally inclined to tell the NSC staff "to go fuck themselves." Told that the NSC insisted it "had the pen" on a report on the status of military efforts in Afghanistan, Gates was "furious": the NSC "might have the pen," he insisted to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, "but it couldn't have its own foreign policy."

Or at least it shouldn't. Though Gates is frequently complimentary toward Obama himself, he clearly faults the president for his failure to rein in his staff. Obama allowed his NSC to become an "operational body with its own policy agenda, as opposed to a coordination mechanism," he charges, and that its agenda was shaped mainly by short-term political considerations.

At this point in my perusal of Gates's memoir, I found myself humming a different Pete Seeger song: "When will they ever learn ... when will they ever learn."

After all, Gates is only the most recent and the most senior in a long line of critics with a similar analysis of the Obama White House. I've even made this critique myself. (I too probably ain't gonna get a job in the administration no more, though I continue to study war.)

Consider Vali Nasr, a former State Department official and respected Middle East expert -- now dean at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies -- who describes his time in the Obama Administration as "a deeply disillusioning experience." He describes Obama as a "dithering" president with "a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics." There's also, of course, former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, who is described in Bob Woodward's book Obama's War as convinced that senior White House political advisors were "major obstacles to developing and deciding on a coherent policy." They "did not understand war or foreign relations," but instead focused on "the short-term political impact" of the president's decisions.

Such critiques aren't just coming from those in national security fields. Commenting on the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov, a New York Times analysis concludes this failure "reveals an insular White House that did not initially appreciate the magnitude of its self-inflicted wounds, and sought help from trusted insiders as it scrambled to protect Mr. Obama's image." Also in the New York Times, Paul Krugman shares his "sense that economic policy discussion in the WH has grown dangerously insular."

Over and over, it's the same story: Read Edward Luce's 2010 analysis in the Financial Times: "[F]ew can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle." Or read James Mann's The Obamians, recounting the frustration of cabinet officials marginalized by Obama's "small inner circle" of former campaign aides. Or dip into Ron Suskind's Confidence Men, describing "the dysfunctions of an often leaderless White House," or Glenn Thrush's recent Politico Magazine article, "Locked in the Cabinet," which notes that "the staffers who rule Obama's West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance." Or consider the conclusions drawn in a December National Journal article by veteran political reporter Ron Fournier: "President Obama needs to fire himself. Not literally, of course, but practically: He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.… For all his strengths, Obama is a private, almost cloistered, politician surrounded by fawning aides who … often put political tactics ahead of governing, protecting the president's image with narrow-minded zeal."

Here's the thing. No one likes "fawning aides" who "put political tactics ahead of governing" -- but if the whole enterprise were a rousing success, we'd hail the fawning aides as world-class geniuses. Imagine if Iraq had become a peaceful -- or, at least, functional -- state, if Afghanistan was stable and safe, if Pakistan was a reliable partner, if Syria's bloody war had ended, if we weren't still trapped in a cycle of perpetual covert war against a poorly defined enemy, if the Russian "reset" had led to increased democracy and amity, if the domestic economy was thriving, if the Healthcare.gov rollout had produced nothing but happy customers, if Obama's approval ratings were still at their 2009 high. Imagine! [Cue John Lennon.]

If Obama's inner circle had led the president from triumph to triumph, who wouldn't forgive a little micromanagement and "operational meddling"? Who wouldn't forgive a little arrogance and insularity from the inner circle?

But that's not where we are. On the contrary, the president's inner circle has presided over policy failure after policy failure. (No, I'm not going to list all those failures -- I've written about many of them before, and anyway it's just too depressing. And yes, I know, there have been some real successes -- but they're mostly small, while the failures are mostly large. And yes, there are also some terrific people on the White House team, who have tried hard to offset the trends described by Gates and so many others. You know who you are, and bless you, and none of this is your fault.)

For a White House that appears to spend too much time thinking about politics rather than policy, here's the biggest failure of all: when it comes to public opinion, Obama's presidency has gone down like a lead balloon. According to Gallup, Obama started out with an impressive 69 percent job approval rating in January 2009. Now he's down to 41 percent job approval, lower than every past president's approval ratings at this point in a second term with the sole exception of Richard Nixon (who was mired in the Watergate scandal at this stage of his presidency).

If the political hacks can't even get the politics right, why on earth does the president keep them around? When will he ever learn?

So here's what I'm wondering: How many more memoirs like Bob Gates's will it take before the president accepts that his critics might just be on to something? How many times does Obama have to hear the same criticisms -- criticisms that come from his friends and supporters as often as they come from his political opponents -- before he recognizes that his presidency's in serious trouble, and eases out the staffers who've been serving him so poorly? 

How many… [Cue Bob Dylan.]

How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn't see?

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.... The answer is blowing in the wind.

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