Thursday, January 23, 2014

Messages from Air Force One

  “He remembers going with his mother to live in Indonesia, in 1967—shortly
  after a military coup, engineered with American help, led to the slaughter
  of hundreds of thousands of people. This event, and the fact that so few
  Americans know much about it, made a lasting impression on Obama.”
   —David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” in the January 27 issue of
     The New Yorker

In the latest New Yorker there is a long piece by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a book about the Soviet Union. The article recounts time Remnick spent with the president during a three-day fundraising swing on the West Coast in November. It is one of those pieces that creates a fair amount of buzz, mainly because of the close-up look it gives readers of the man who is ostensibly the most powerful in the world and because of the fresh batch of direct quotes it provides.

Since the article first became available, Remnick has been seemingly everywhere on TV news shows. The piece has been combed for details and thoroughly discussed in blogs and other media. It’s the kind of exposure that usually gets heaped on the release of a hot new book.

Personally, I thought the best reaction on TV came from The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who sat next to Remnick on Sunday’s pundit panel on ABC’s This Week.

She said to him, “I found I was fascinated by your piece. I found the president in the piece to be somewhat passive, somewhat thoughtful, smart, but going through the motions. You were with him, I think, three days. He’s at fundraisers where he’s handling rich people, and he’s playing cards on the plane. I’ll tell you, the portrait struck me as, whoa, we don’t have enough problems for this man to be doing active and serious things while David Remnick is with him?”

Visibly taken aback, Remnick muttered, “I think that’s an odd reading…” as the rest of the group broke into nervous laughter. He went on to explain that all presidents do party fundraising.

You might wonder about the president’s reaction to the discussion, but thanks to Remnick we know that he would not have seen it. When Senator Chuck Schumer criticized the relaxation of sanctions against Iran on Meet the Press, wrote Remnick, “Obama hadn’t tuned in. ‘I don’t watch Sunday-morning shows,’ he said. ‘That’s been a well-established rule.’ Instead, he went out to play ball.”

When it comes to foreign policy, the passage that seems to have stirred up the most comment is the one where the president talks about Al Qaeda. Remnick reminds him of how, in the 2012 campaign, he spoke of killing Osama bin Laden and of how Al Qaeda had been decimated. “I pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.”

The president’s response: “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” He goes on to elaborate that “how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

He is right of course right that, if a group of people calling themselves Al Qaeda happen to be exert control over territory in the Middle East through violent means, it doesn’t necessarily imply an direct or immediate threat to the United States. The problem is that, when people calling themselves Al Qaeda left Sudan in 1996 to set up a headquarters in Afghanistan, they did not pose a direct or immediate threat to the United States that time either—until they did.

Does he not think it significant that groups of people, who are organized around a common ideology that is strongly anti-western and who use a common name, are gaining territory on two different continents and are recruiting converts internationally—regardless of the nature of their links to the late Osama bin Laden’s inner circle?

The amount of time and effort that the president and his spokespeople put into parsing and distinguishing the idea of “core Al Qaeda” versus Al Qaeda affiliates, allies, wannabes, etc. tends to confuse rather than shed light on the extent of any threats these groups pose. Presumably, this is a byproduct of the Benghazi issue, which refuses to die. Republicans have been loath to let that attack fade into history, although lately it has been others who are keeping it alive.

In December The New York Times published an in-depth piece on the Benghazi attack by David Kirkpatrick that was clearly intended to be the last word on the subject. It raised eyebrows by dismissing the idea of Al Qaeda involvement and giving credence to the administration’s original insistence that a YouTube video was to blame. But Kirkpatrick’s assessment wasn’t nearly as clear cut as his detractors and defenders made it sound. He wrote, “Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.”

Unfortunately for this grand summation, less than three weeks later the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by Dianne Feinstein, released its report on the matter stating, “Individuals affiliated with terrorist groups, including AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], Ansar al-Sharia, AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], and the Mohammad Jamal Network, participated in the September 11, 2012, attacks.”

The thing is that the basic facts about the Benghazi attack—including who the perpetrators were—have been pretty well known since soon after it occurred a year ago last September. All of the arguing about it ever since has been about the spin. That is why there is so much pointless discussion over whether this group or that group were “real” or “core” Al Qaeda or merely affiliates or sympathizers. As someone once demanded to know, “What difference does it make?”

And that is precisely the point. That rhetorical question was, of course, asked by Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time of the attack. She is one of the main reasons that there is so much furious spinning on both sides about the attack. One side wants her possible presidential campaign damaged. The other side wants it not to be.

That’s what difference it makes. American foreign policy which, at one time, was fairly bi-partisan, has become extremely politicized.

In any event, there are more interesting tidbits in Remnick’s article that shed light on President Obama’s foreign policy thinking and which deserve exploration.

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