Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

The President, it seems, can’t walk and chew gum. The so-called Asian pivot is a case in point, but not the only one.

Is it really possible that a great power with the formal institutional resources available to the U.S. can’t keep an eye on the Middle East and China at the same time? Especially since the China issue massively involves the Navy and the Middle East far less so?

Or is this really just a presidential problem? Does Barack Obama lack the smarts to juggle a complex agenda or, to use the current jargon, to multitask? Or is he a colossally bad manager? Or lazy? Or more in love with the image than the obligations of being president?

Or, truly frightening to contemplate, is the obviously troubled U.S. system we used to admire rotten and corrupted to the point of irremediability?

No Lack of People

Look at it this way. There are thousands of thoughtful, well-informed people within the State Department, the National Security Council, the many-pronged intelligence apparatus and the Pentagon to gather information, assess its implications, draw up policy and/or action plans and send them up the hierarchy to be dealt with—collated, evaluated, weighed, tweaked, given relative priorities with appropriate resources—and, passing muster, implemented. Could we possibly be reduced to this: able to activate only one department of one branch of government at one time?

Seems to me that a well-managed country that pretends to super power status should be able to deal with the Middle East and with China simultaneously—and also, at the same time, with Latin America and Africa as well as all the global issues that affect the welfare of this and other countries.

If not, the Republicans are right. Thousands of people should be out of a job because they are redundant, which is a polite way of calling them useless.

A Definite Lack of Deft PD

Actually, the apparent inability to multi-task isn’t my only perplexity on the “pivot” front, and I’d like to exhaust those concerns before I return to the question of whether this government can simultaneously walk and check gum (and, one would hope, also be able to blow big beautiful bubbles—excluding the financial sort, of course).

As an old hand at public diplomacy, I deeply do not understand why the administration so blatantly announced that it was shifting its attention, i.e., executing a pivot, to the East, thus implying that the U.S. lacks the resources to handle a full plate of global issues. Maybe the U.S. isn’t equipped these days to wage a two-front war, but any world power worth the name must have the resources to carry out effective diplomacy on a global scale. Otherwise, it’s not a middling power, much less a super power.

What’s more, isn’t it rather dense to inform both friends and non-friends in the Middle East that their neighborhood no longer merits significant American attention? What a wonderful way to dishearten old allies while encouraging trouble-makers to step up their mischief! And how insulting, this the loss of face, of importance, announced to the whole world: old friends no longer matter!

Naturally, this ex-practitioner of public diplomacy can imagine reasons for reallocating resources, but I can’t think of one good reason to trumpet such a refocusing of policy. Why tell the Chinese we’re so worried about their growing wealth and power that we’ll be turning all our attention on the South China Sea? Why put Beijing on the alert? Seems to me that a naive pivoting announcement does more damage to U.S. security than any of the so-called “national security” leaks that the Obama administration (not exactly innocent of administration-favorable leaking) is working overtime to prevent or punish, Wikileaks included.  (By the way, the best way to prevent leaks?  Classify less cavalierly.)

So what would be the better course in allocating resources and attention? Forget the grandstanding. Be tough or supportive as needed, judiciously devoting to each country or issue the staff time and resources merited, including, needless to say, regard for long and short term needs. Result: no inflated egos, no deflated egos, no red flags, no white flags, no jejeune statements about sticks and carrots, no awkward comparisons. And be aware of nuance: it’s one thing to say you’ll be paying a little more attention to X. It’s another to execute a complete pivot. (Are we tethered here to the President’s love for basketball?)

The Mismanaged Benghazi Affair

Measure, reason, skill: none was apparent in the handling of the Benghazi tragedy, which presented the world with the awkward drama of three U.S. foreign affairs agencies trying to evade responsibility. That’s the CIA, State and the Pentagon.  Result: a muddle, since the obvious point of convergence, i.e. the Office of the President, didn’t jump in quickly enough with some straight talking about the actual situation in Benghazi: things didn’t fall through the cracks; there was no there there, meaning the U.S. presence in Benghazi was cloak and dagger stuff masquerading as a consular outpost, a fact which sort of dribbled out, but not before the Republicans had a chance to dance over the body of a dead ambassador. They continue to do so.

In public diplomacy and public affairs, you can’t have an on-the-shelf script (or big fat briefing book) for everything; sometimes you need smart articulate people with the depth of knowledge, dexterity and good judgement to improvise fast in order to ward off  worse evils from wild public speculation.  

Neurotic secretiveness, over-compartmentalization and dodgy bureaucratic arrangements lead to waffling. Waffling tends to create more problems that it solves. Someone wasn’t covering the special vulnerabilities of the weird mutant post that was Benghazi. Why? Willful blindness, perhaps. Plus lack of appreciation for the enemy? Neither a wise diplomatic stance.

Cluelessness in the West Wing

The IRS kerfluffle provides another example of administrative incompetence at the highest level: the President’s unimaginative, closest advisors failed to give him a chance to be pro-active vis-à-vis the IRS analysts who devised politically-charged search terms (liberal as well as conservative) to help them  (very likely) deal with a plethora of organizations seeking advantageous tax status. The tax people were politically clueless, but their behavior was rational, and the president could have made that case before the Republicans jumped on another politically-resonant issue that refuses to die. 

Dogged, devoted IRS people over-worked due to under-staffing caused by ruthless-budget cutting and a monumentally unwise Supreme Court decision in the case known as Citizens United.  What a terrific story!  But it was trumped before it was played.  Doesn’t the President have any savvy public affairs people on his staff?

As for his own tsar-like, godlike, above-it-all stance, not only is it unconvincing, it’s unappealing.  I can’t help thinking of the lifesize cardboard figures that tourists like to be photographed with. 

Welcome Cracks in the Edifice of Secrecy

The head of the IRS has resigned, but there’s a more highly-placed head that should be rolling just now: that of Eric Holder, the President’s good friend, who is also the Attorney General  of the United States. Holder has tried to make us believe that he had nothing to do with the heavy-handed, broad-as-a-barn investigation of a source feeding into the Associated Press offices. However, if Holder did indeed “delegate” the details of this particular operation, the operation was engineered to work precisely as  Holder usually does in his relentless pursuit of non-transparency, always in the intimidating, all but criticism-proof guise of protecting the national security.  

In fact, the AP snooping caper is entirely consistent with the Obama administration’s aggressive approach to uninhibited prosecutorial privilege. This Democratic president seems no less committed than his Republican predecessor to the systematic trashing of due process and all other procedural and judicial protections, to say nothing of its lack of respect for First Amendment guarantees of a free press and free association or the derivative right to privacy, all of which used to give us a sense of security as citizens.

Interestingly enough, the Administration acted quickly to deflect attention after the shocking extent of its AP source sweep was revealed.  The ploy?  Suggesting its support for a press shield law. Ha! Anyone who thinks the Obama people will not gladly let such a bill die must also still believe that this administration will fight to curb the malignant role of the super wealthy in American politics. Sommers, Geitner, Lew: the personalities say it all. Wall Street rules.


Perhaps I malign the Obama administration unfairly—which is to say, for the wrong things. Obviously these people do work hard. They work hard to manage issues they care about.  If we don’t always notice, it’s because they must work as quietly as possible, lest our awareness lead to our much needed opposition.

Bumbling on the surface. Ruthless below.

And meanwhile the President does have a beautiful smile.