In Which the Obama Administration Summons the Ghost of Casey Stengel to Ask His Famous Question

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on March 11, 2011

“Can’t anyone here play this game?”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley is already the subject of one controversy today due to remarks he made about the treatment of alleged WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning. But Crowley is also in trouble due to a tweet he sent out this morning — and later deleted — comparing the situation in the Middle East to the disaster in Japan.

“We’ve been watching hopeful #tsunami sweep across #MiddleEast. Now seeing a tsunami of a different kind sweep across Japan,” Crowley tweeted Friday morning, a State Department official confirmed to The Cable. Crowley’s Twitter site no longer includes the tweet, suggesting that he deleted it after the fact. Crowley didn’t immediately respond to a request from The Cable.

Multiple administration sources told The Cable that the Defense Department leadership was very upset with Crowley about both incidents.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was asked at his Friday press conference if he agreed with Crowley’s statements at MIT on Thursday that Manning’s treatment by the Defense Department was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

Lest anyone think that this is the only example of the Obama Administration’s inability to impose message discipline regarding foreign policy and national security statements . . . well . . . read this:

When Barack Obama nominated retired Air Force General James Clapper to be his Director of National Intelligence last June, he hailed him as a man who would speak the truth regardless of the consequences. Clapper, the president said, “possesses a quality that I value in all my advisers: a willingness to tell leaders what we need to know even if it’s not what we want to hear.”

Yesterday, Clapper did just that, telling a Senate committee that the regime of Muammar Ghaddafi “will prevail” in Libya. It was not what the White House wanted to hear. And instead of receiving thanks, Clapper earned a de facto rebuke from national security advisor Tom Donilon, who argued that Clapper’s analysis was based on a “static analysis” of military strength that omitted such other factors as diplomatic pressure. But mostly it sounded like a White House determined to control its message and avert the perception that the president is backing down from his prior insistence that Ghaddafi must go.

The flap will soon pass and be forgotten. But it has underscored concerns about Clapper, who is probably known to many a causal observer of Washington politics mainly–and unfairly–as “that intelligence guy who keeps saying dumb things.”

Already in his brief tenure Clapper has been caught unawares about a major terror arrest and castigated for calling the devout Muslim Brotherhood “largely secular.” And in addition to his Libya comment yesterday, Clapper cited China and Russia in answer to a question about which nations pose the greatest “mortal threat” to the U.S., puzzling even senior Democrats on the panel who might have mentioned the likes of North Korea or Iran. (“I do not believe they are China or Russia, so I do not understand why that was put out there,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a party leader on intelligence issues, said yesterday “Clearly there’s a problem.”)

More:

On a conference call this afternoon, the White House national security adviser Tom Donilon said President Obama has confidence in Clapper but called his analyses “static and uni-dimensional” — not taking enough other factors into account.

“I don’t think that’s the most informative analysis, frankly,” Donilon said. “I think the analysis needs to be dynamic and it needs to be multidimensional.”

The potential problem for Clapper is the Director of National Intelligence is supposed to be the big-picture thinker who takes everything into account in a dynamic, multidimensional world.

During the hearing, the Democratic Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, said he was “frankly kind of surprised” by Clapper’s answer. For one, Levin said, Clapper didn’t mention Iran or North Korea.

“As I interpreted the question, it is, you know, which country or countries would represent a mortal threat to the United States,” Clapper said. “The two that come to mind are — because of their capabilities — are Russia and China.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, who asked the original question about which nation poses the biggest threat, attempted to clarify. “Which country represents to you that has the intent to be our greatest adversary?”

“Probably China,” Clapper said.

“I’m just as surprised by that answer as I was by your first answer,” Levin said. “You’re saying that China now has the intent to be a mortal adversary of the United States?”

Clapper said the question is, “from among the nation-states, who would pose potentially the greatest — if I have to pick one country, which I’m loath to do because I’m more of a mind to consider their capabilities — and both Russia and China potentially represent a mortal threat to the United States.”

Clapper again underlined he didn’t think either country has the intent to threaten the US, he was speaking strictly in terms of capabilities.

[. . .]

Donilon was asked if President Obama is happy with a Director of National Intelligence who offers static and one dimensional analyses.

“The president is very happy with the performance of General Clapper and we work together every single day,” Donilon said. “I was asked a question about the statement, right? And I think my judgment of the statement is, is a static analysis and he needs to take into account the dynamic, dynamics.”

Donilon said “if you did a static and one dimensional assessment of just looking at order of battle and mercenaries you can come to various conclusions about the various advantages that the Gadahfi regime has…My view is as the person who looks at this quite closely every day and advises the president, is that thing in the Middle East right now things in Libya are in particular, right now need to be looked out not through static but a dynamic and not through a uni-dimensional but a multidimensional lens.”

Calling what Clapper said “a narrow view” of “numbers of weapons and things like that,” Donilon said “you get a very different picture” if you take other factors into account. “The loss of legitimacy matters. The isolation of the regime matters. Denying the regime resources matters and this can affect the sustainability of their efforts over time. Motivation matters. And incentives matter. The people in Libya are determined to affect their future.”

‘Change is the order of the day in the Middle East right now,” said Donilon. “You have to look at things fresh and you have to take into account what I said — the dynamic, right, as well as the multidimensional nature of it.”

Of Clapper’s analysis that China and Russia posed the greatest threats to the U.S., Donilon said, “if you do a static arithmetic analysis that could take you to that conclusion but…it really doesn’t inform a threat analysis. And we have from the beginning as you know worked very hard on the great power relationships.”

One might say that Clapper should not be penalized for giving what he believed to be honest assessments of the geopolitical situation. One might even have a point in saying such a thing. But the problem here is not so much that Clapper is making startling statements, as it is that the White House has no idea whatsoever how to handle those public statements, and how to coordinate comments within and throughout the Executive Branch to ensure that the Administration will be speaking with one voice on foreign policy and national security issues. Right now, there is a cacophony of voices within the Administration, each struggling with the other to present the U.S. government’s line on these matters.

To be sure, there have been disagreements, arguments, even out-and-out fights in other Administrations. Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz were famous for their disputes over foreign and national security policy during the Reagan Administration, and during the Administration of George Bush the Elder, “scheduled trainwrecks” would allow principals to argue with one another in the presence of the President, letting him hear all options before deciding on a course of action. Intellectual ferment–even if it boils over into shouting and arguing, from time to time–is a good and wonderful thing. No administration should seek to silence such debate. But what we are seeing in the Obama Administration’s national security team is not intellectual ferment. Rather, it is the spectacle of foreign policy and national security principals failing to sing from the same songsheet thanks to sheer disorganization.

If that doesn’t worry you, it should. And someone in the Administration should put a stop to the disorganization. Bill Daley, the new White House Chief of Staff, is said to be a pretty tough enforcer. Perhaps he could bring some order to the process. Come to think of it, perhaps the President might want to put his foot down, and demand that amateur hour be brought to an end.

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  • Anonymous

    It’s an interesting problem. He is undoubtedly correct that the gravest threat to the United States is China, not North Korea or Iran, and I’m quite happy to hear at least one prominent administration official recognizes this, but he should probably keep that within the White House Team. It’s probably not wise to be saying it publicly.

    Overall, I suppose better that he’s always honest than that he’s always right. But really, the Muslim Brotherhood is secular?

  • Cranfordsmith

    You’re calling “startling” a professional assessment that China and Russia, not NK and Iran, have the capability to pose a “mortal threat” to the US? Manchin needs to choose his rhetorical flourishes more carefully if he wants a different answer. The priority isn’t getting everyone on the same page. It’s getting everyone on the *right* page. It’s inconvenient for the administration that the threat exists, just as it’s inconvenient that the debt exists. They want to convince us that we live in a world where grim realities don’t constrain their agenda. You’re to be commended for having previously pointed out the dangers of blowing sunshine about the debt. Suggesting stricter party line enforcement on threat assessment, even as convenient administration-bashing, must be different for you. But how?

  • http://pumping-irony.livejournal.com/ Wilbur Post

    The Obama administration is like the 1962 Mets. Marv Throneberry is in the Oval Office. The answer to the rhetorical question is “no”.

  • Anonymous

    A whole bunch of rank amateurs, trying to set policy without discussion with
    their counter parts. All Obumma manages to do is spout outright lies, and it
    takes a week for someone like Clapper to catch up to them.Ergo, nobody is o0n the same page. It’s past time for impeachment, and to rid our country of these intellectual rubes.

  • orbicularioculi

    There isn’t much doubt that the Obama Administration is the most incompetent group of individuals EVER to advise a Presisent of the United States. And this President surely is the most unqualified individuals to ever be elected as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief. Obama is a joke to anyone who pays attention.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/4WFXXVPO6IWWPG3EOVMCOFR5ZI Blog

    With a name as cool as Pejman Yousefzadeh, he should be working at Reason Magazine. Radley Balko, Veronique de Rugy, some lady named Sra… the list is long. Send them your resume, Mr.Yousefzadeh!

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