The midterm elections will reshape the power structure in Washington, but not in the way you might expect. The most significant changes will not be decided by the voters. They will be made by President Barack Obama within his administration.
If there was ever a time to bring new blood, it is now. And the new management is most urgently needed in the sphere of foreign policy.
It would be thoroughly unfair to blame Obama and his team for the multiplicity of complicated crises that have emerged during their term, but it would be impossible to argue they’ve handled the challenges with impressive skill.
Most recently, what has been coming out of the White House has been downright baffling, from insulting the leaders of friendly countries to mocking America’s top diplomat.
The U.S. is facing a cataclysm in the Middle East, the threat of a renewed Cold War with Russia, a resurgent China that alternates between intimidating and courting America’s Asian allies. Latin America has been taken from the back burner to no burner at all. Africa, in fairness, is the one place where the United States can have a major impact in helping stop the advance of Ebola, but even that laudable project is not going well due to failures of White House management.
The administration has allowed the small outbreak at home, the handful of Ebola cases on U.S. soil, to devolve into an embarrassing display, much to the amusement and amazement of other countries. Policies, particularly on quarantine, are completely inconsistent, even irrational. Obama’s Ebola “czar” is not a public health expert; he’s a political operator so he might have helped maneuver the political obstacles of developing uniform policies. But he’s nowhere to be seen.
The Ebola mess at home will have an impact on fighting the disease abroad, discouraging health workers from going to Africa to prevent the crisis from turning into something much worse and shifting the focus from where it must be attacked.
But it is the Middle East where the problems are most threatening. That’s why it was astonishing to see an administration official use a journalist to insult the prime minister of Israel, America’s most reliable ally in the region. An anonymous senior White House official now-famously called Benjamin Netanyahu a “chickens--t.” That was a deliberate effort to pressure Netanyahu into aligning his policies more closely with Obama’s views.
Granted, the substance and style of Netanyahu’s actions have proven frustrating to many, but the verbal assault is not only crass, it is counter-productive in every possible way. The impact will be to strengthen hardliners in Israel and throw fuel on the fire of Palestinian extremist rage. The comments on Iran in the “chickensh--t” article by Jeffrey Goldberg are also cause for concern, glibly indicating that the White House feels it outplayed Netanyahu, as if the matter of Iran’s nuclear program were about political point-scoring, not security.
America’s Arab allies have lost faith in Washington. All sides in the Arab world have become mistrustful, complicating the Obama anti-Islamic State effort. And Turkey, the NATO member, has become more unreliable than ever. The United States does not have a lot of friends.
With the administration under fire, someone else (perhaps the same person opining on Netanyahu) inside the White House took a nasty swipe at Obama’s own secretary of state, adding to the impression that the operation is amateurish and floundering. Sec. John Kerry was already made to play the fool after he made an impassioned speech in Congress in support of U.S. strikes on Assad’s forces last year, only to see Obama reverse course.
Now, someone in the White House jokingly describes him as so disconnected from Obama as Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, “somersaulting through space untethered to the White House.”
It’s all an ugly spectacle with very serious consequences for America’s standing and ability to carry out its policies. And it is becoming so serious, so pressing, that it will force Obama to make changes in key positions after the election. It had better.