White House Message Control Breeds Tension
Surprised to see the news the other day that the Obama administration is sending an ambassador back to Syria? So were officials in Hillary Clinton's State Department. They were still hoping to win more movement from Damascus on Middle East issues when President Obama's decision was leaked.
The diplomatic consequences of a rare crossed wire within this controlled administration are difficult to measure. Syria was being asked to help stop terrorist acts such as the bombings that hit northwestern Iraq last week, diplomatic sources tell me. But Syrian promises on terrorism are notoriously unreliable. Little of substance may have been lost by the poorly timed disclosure.
A lapse on message control is nonetheless a significant event in Team Obama's foreign policy. As a candidate, Obama honed communications management to a high art, and his closest advisers have instilled it at the top of their hierarchy of values.
I asked a visiting foreign minister how dealing with the United States has changed under Obama. His response: "Wherever we go -- the White House, State or the Pentagon -- we hear exactly the same message. That never happened with George W. Bush."
This answer would no doubt please Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser, who coordinates the president's foreign policy positions. Jones himself is said to have chilled a Middle East leader, who had asked for separate meetings with a wide array of senior administration officials, by saying:
"Why don't I just get them all together around one table for you? You are going to hear the same thing from all of them."
The fact is this is a cohesive administration. Jones and Clinton respect each other and understand each other's roles. Even though they were not part of Obama's campaign team, they have adapted quickly to his rigorous style of managed communication, which is policed by an inner circle of Obama intimates: Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and Denis McDonough, who are the most influential message commissars at the White House.
That circle decides who gets interviewed on national television, when and pretty much what they say (not very successfully in the case of Vice President Biden, but nobody's perfect). It was no accident that Clinton did not appear on a Sunday television talk show until June 7 -- almost five months into the administration -- when the secretary of state was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."
Convinced that Obama is a unique American communicator, the White House did not want anyone else diluting his aura as spokesman to the world. And, surprise, surprise, this approach maximizes the close-in advisers' clout.
Their first-among-equals standing is also on display in quiet ways during the president's frequent overseas travels and leadership meetings, such as his trips to Russia and the Group of 8 summit in Italy last week. Officials abroad are struck by Obama's reflexive reliance on Emanuel, his chief of staff, even on foreign policy issues in these meetings. And one diplomat was surprised to learn that Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, had been thoroughly briefed by Obama after a one-on-one meeting with the diplomat's president before Jones or Clinton were.
This is where the potential fissure lines within this administration lie. I don't think you will find Jones and Clinton fighting tooth-and-nail over strategy, as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance did, or sniping at each other like Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld. Recent accounts to the contrary, the president continues to value Jones's advice and the clout with the military that the retired Marine general brings.
Tensions will emerge instead between the close-in advisers and the Cabinet secretaries who have been chosen to sell and implement policies more than to decide them.
Case in point: Resentment is already stirring at State over Emanuel's systematic, successful effort to reserve nearly all of the administration's major ambassadorships as rewards for big campaign fundraisers. Clinton had pressed for a number of highly qualified experts -- such as Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who was ticketed for Japan -- but was blown off by the White House.
As with the misstep on Syria, the argument is not about substance but more about who gets credit for what when. But that can have serious consequences on the collegiality that the president says is so important. As Henry Kissinger has noted, arguments in academia are so bitter because the stakes are so small. That can complicate governing as well.