Micromanager In Chief — David Rohde and Warren Strobel in The Atlantic review President Obama’s management of national security.
This account of Obama’s national-security decision-making is based on interviews with more than 30 current and former U.S. government officials, who have served both Democratic and Republican administrations going back to President Richard Nixon.
In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security—a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in non-lethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.
On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.
The president, initially perceived as one of the greatest communicators of his generation, is now viewed as having done a poor job of defining and defending his foreign policy, polls indicate. A majority of Americans—54 percent—disapprove of Obama’s foreign-policy performance, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling. That’s one of the lowest ratings of his presidency.
Rhodes, one of Obama’s longest-serving national-security aides, says a series of complex world crises, not policy mistakes, has driven down the president’s approval numbers. More broadly, he says, Obama has been right to be deliberative in the wake of costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “What he’s always said is that if there’s a threat against us, we will act,” Rhodes said. “But when it comes to shaping events in cultures that are foreign to the United States we have to have some degree of realism.”
Obama has had notable national-security successes. His record of protecting U.S. territory from attack remains largely unblemished. Current and former officials praise his policy on nuclear talks with Iran as clear and consistent. He is building a coalition against Islamic State that includes Arab nations participating in airstrikes with the United States, Britain, France, and others.
And while past presidents faced grave dangers, most notably the possibility of Cold War Armageddon, for Obama the world is very different. The decisions he must make on using U.S. military force have multiplied. This reality, supporters say, is overlooked by detractors.
Obama has launched a humanitarian military intervention in Libya; overseen counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere; moved to end his predecessor’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; wrestled with lethal threats to U.S. hostages and diplomatic posts; and sent the American military to West Africa to help tackle the Ebola virus and search for kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
Current and former officials say the globalized world of Twitter and 24/7 news creates an expectation at home and abroad that the United States will quickly take a position on any foreign-policy issue. The demand for instant American positions—and American leadership—can be overwhelming.
“One of the biggest problems in Washington,” said retired General James Jones, who was Obama’s national security advisor from 2009 to 2010, “is to find the time to think strategically, not tactically. You’d wake up and there would be a new crisis and you’d be scrambling to deal with them.”
The Perils of Rick Scott — Charlie Pierce on the governor’s race down here.
As if the biggest Medicare fraud case in history didn’t tip us off already, Florida Governor Rick Scott is little more than Florida Man writ large and dressed better. Those who are aware of all Internet traditions know that Florida Man is profoundly self-explanatory. You say Florida Man, and your companion knows that all manner of hullabaloo and shenanigans are likely to follow, from a bank robbery to a busload of nuns fed to the burgeoning python community in the Everglades. Florida Man. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes’s assessment of Dr. Watson, Florida man is the stormy petrel of criminal crazy. And, while Governor Batboy is Florida Man in a fine suit, in his heart, and increasingly in the public mind, he is running out his backdoor, barefoot, his mullet flapping in the breeze, with half the local sheriff’s department and a film crew from Cops in pursuit, while the local DA wonders about the human heads in the icebox.
Florida’s Sunshine Laws — and yes, Florida, we see what you did there — require that state officials must disclose completely any assets worth more than $1000. A lawsuit filed by George Sheldon, a Democratic candidate for attorney-general, charges that Scott has played fast and loose with this constitutional requirement. (Back in the 1970’s, then-governor Reubin Askew fought hard and won a battle to include these disclosure rules as an amendment to the Florida constitution. Askew’s cause was helped immeasurably by the fact that he pitched his amendment immediately after three elected cabinet members and three justices of the Florida Supreme Court all resigned behind allegations of corruption. So, yeah, they’re quite serious about it.) In addition, a recent joint investigation by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times has raised questions about whether or not Scott is hiding his money through creative accounting and bookkeeping legerdemain.
The governor, for instance, does not disclose the entire value of assets that reside in different trust and partnership accounts and for which he’s listed in federal records as the “beneficial owner,” according to an extensive Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times review of hundreds of federal and state documents filed in Florida, Washington, Connecticut, Texas, Nevada and Illinois. The documents also show: Information about Scott’s income and investments provided on state disclosure forms differ from financial information he furnished to the IRS and the Securities and Exchange Commission; the various Scott family investment trusts and partnerships often act in tandem with his blind trust and involve Scott’s long-time financial advisors – raising questions about how independent the trust is from the governor; between 2009 and 2013, the income reported on the governor’s state financial disclosure and the income reported to the IRS differed each year, fluctuating as much as $41 million in a single year.
That’s a helluva fluctuation right there. I wish I could fluctuate on that level. So do many other people. Then there’s this Solantic thing, a health care delivery concern from which Scott derived much of his considerable fortune. When he ran for governor, in order to avoid regulatory conflicts of interest, Scott put the Solantic assets into a revocable — important adjective alert! — trust named after his wife. Except, of course, Scott was out there again, fluctuating so uncontrollably that he apparently couldn’t avoid those pesky conflicts of interest.
Federal documents submitted to the SEC in other transactions show the governor was the trust’s “beneficial owner” and therefore had a major say over its assets. Still, after Scott transferred the money to a trust to which he retained control, he said that he had nothing to do with Solantic any longer. “I’m not involved in that company,” Scott said on March 29, 2011, while at the same time he huddled with his attorneys and helped negotiate the sale to a private-equity firm with which he had done business in the past. Two weeks later, he announced the pending sale. He said at the time that he had sold it for less than $62 million.
I have very little sympathy for the electorate on this one. Florida voters allowed this guy to buy his way into office knowing that he’d presided over a company that had paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle a massive Medicare fraud case, one that arose from the kind of double-bookkeeping that the Herald and the Times imply is going on now with Scott’s treatment of his assets. Scott has maintained for years that he was unaware that his old company was on the fiddle. His former accountant, who became the primary whistleblower in the fraud case, says otherwise, and continues to say so to this day. Scott’s in a life-and-death situation for re-election against Charlie Crist, the former Republican who is now a Democrat. I suspect all this will come up when they debate.
Fear Factor — Michael Specter in The New Yorker on the hysteria over Ebola in America.
Fear is not a weakness; it’s how people respond to danger. Unless it is calibrated properly, however, fear quickly turns into panic, and panic moves faster than any virus. Diseases that get the most attention and cause the greatest anxiety are rarely those which claim the most lives. Malaria, tuberculosis, and H.I.V. have killed hundreds of thousands of people this year. Fewer than a thousand people died in the 2003 SARS epidemic, but a report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that its cost to the global economy—not only in medical expenditures but in lost trade, productivity, and investment—was almost forty billion dollars.
At least four thousand people have already died of Ebola, the economic impact of the epidemic has been calamitous, and every day the numbers get worse. But we need to stop acting as if the tragedy unfolding in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone could happen here on anything like the same scale. There will be more cases of Ebola in the United States, but unless something remarkably unlikely develops, such as a mutation that makes it easier for the virus to spread, the epidemic can be stopped. Ebola is difficult to contract, and although viruses mutate constantly, once they are established in humans they do not generally alter their mode of transmission.
That message is not getting through. According to a Harris poll taken just before Duncan’s diagnosis, forty per cent of Americans believed that Ebola represented a major or a moderate threat to public health in the United States. Thirty-seven per cent thought that the H1N1 influenza epidemic of 2009 posed a similar threat. The two outbreaks are not comparable. H1N1 infected about twenty per cent of the world’s population, including sixty million Americans. A catastrophe was averted owing solely to a biological fluke: the death rate of those infected was unusually low—there were more than twelve thousand fatalities in the U.S., but that is far fewer than die from the flu in most years.
Our response to pandemics—whether SARS, avian influenza, MERS, or Ebola—has become predictable. First, there is the panic. Then, as the pandemic ebbs, we forget. We can’t afford to do either. This epidemic won’t be over soon, but that is even more reason to focus on what works. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone all need more money, more health-care workers, and more troops to help coördinate relief efforts. In the short term, the only way to halt the epidemic is with better infection-control measures. In Senegal and Nigeria, two countries where poverty and health problems are pervasive, the most basic such measures—contact tracing, quarantine, and proper protections for health workers—seem to have had a positive effect. (Part of the success in Nigeria is also due to the fact that officials made an enormous effort to keep the virus out of Lagos, a city of twenty million people.)
We also need to take better advantage of our scientific tools. Advances in molecular and synthetic biology have begun to provide a sophisticated understanding of the genetic composition of viruses. We are increasingly able to make vaccines by assembling synthetic proteins as if they were molecular Legos. Rob Carlson, the author of “Biology Is Technology,” who has written widely about genetic engineering and vaccine development, says, “We could have pushed the development of a synthetic Ebola vaccine a decade ago. We had the skills, but we chose not to pursue it. Why? Because we weren’t the people getting sick.” One day, a virus that matches our sense of doom may come along. Until then, we will need to rely on data and evidence—not theatrics or fear.
Doonesbury — The best-laid plans.