Before Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent trip to Cairo, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told him to make strong statements in public and private about the trial of deposed President Mohamed Morsi. On his own, Kerry decided to disregard the White House’s instructions.
The tension between the national security adviser and the secretary of state spilled over into public view in the past week, when Rice laid out her critical appraisal of the Egyptian government, which contradicted Kerry’s assessment that Egypt was “on the path to democracy.” The now public rift has been simmering behind the scenes for months and illustrates the strikingly divergent Egypt policies the White House and the State Department are pursuing.
Infighting among the national policy team players is nothing new in American administrations, but what is extraordinary is that the president is nowhere to be seen in this episode. The national security adviser didn’t present President Obama with the options, he didn’t direct Kerry (the national security adviser isn’t Kerry’s boss; the president is) and there is no definitive policy apparent to either America or Egyptian onlookers (“officials and experts said the administration’s Egypt policy is hampered not only by internal tensions but also by being ad hoc and reactive, without a long-term strategy dictated by President Obama”).
The same could be said of the president’s entire approach to the Middle East. From what we’ve seen of the president, he prefers dealing with dictators (Kerry’s view) over bold defense of human rights (be it in Russia, Syria, Iran or China). But then again, considering his staff doesn’t like to bring him bad news and he didn’t know about an impending implosion of his most important policy initiative (Obamacare), it’s possible he has no idea there is a conflict and no clue how to reconcile competing objectives.
Kerry and Rice should have taken their disagreement to the president, but perhaps they figured he wouldn’t have been of much help. For all of his hubris about foreign policy and insistence his mere presence on the world stage would resolve decades-old disputes there is no “Obama doctrine” or even discrete policies that define his foreign policy. The “real” Obama — dithering, uncertain, obsessed with partisan advantage — came through in the Syria debacle (there, too, Kerry often was not on the same page with Obama).
Whether it is a rudderless foreign policy or a domestic blunder of astounding incompetence, the president seems not to know what is going on around him. Maybe that comes from too often pretending he’s not part of the political scene in D.C. or from his conviction that he is on the side of virtue and criticism is illegitimate. Then again, he was grossly unprepared and among our most inexperienced presidents when he took over, so maybe he’s just lost, in over his head. That is a frightening possibility considering we have three more years of this.