Yes, after 225 weeks with relatively little in the way of scandal sticking to the Obama presidency, the 226th week was especially thorny.
The president’s advisers are undoubtedly devising strategies to relieve the pressure.
It might be a good time for Obama to look outside the bunker. If so, my nomination is Robert M. Gates, a man who served as secretary of the Defense Department under both Obama and President George W. Bush. (He also served under President George H.W. Bush.)
Speaking on a Sunday chat show last week, Gates told hard truths about Benghazi and the U.S. response. One line of attack on the Obama administration is that it did not act decisively or forcefully enough in reacting to the crisis. From the outside looking in, Gates said, it appears to him that the top people in the Pentagon last September made the right call.
“Had I been in the job at the time,” Gates said on the CBS program Face the Nation, “I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were. We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East.”
He went on to say that “getting somebody there in a timely way — would have been very difficult, if not impossible. And frankly, I’ve heard, ‘Well, why didn’t you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare ‘em with the noise or something?’ Well, given the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from Gaddafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft — over Benghazi under those circumstances.”
On this subject and others, Gates offers what he calls a “realist’s view.”
“I had quite a reputation as a pessimist when I was in the intelligence business,” Gates said in a 2007 speech at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy in Williamsburg, Va. “A journalist once described me as the Eeyore of national security — able to find the darkest cloud in any silver lining.”
The United States has put such skepticism to good use during its history. The job of leader of the free world can rapidly age a U.S. chief executive. The world is watching you stand atop the global stage where each misstep is magnified. Your foreign enemies are well-versed at subterfuge designed to put egg on your face. Your domestic foes are hoping you’ll trip and fall. Your fellow party members are easily frightened and prone to self-destructive finger-pointing.
In a lengthy Vanity Fair profile last year, the author Michael Lewis neatly summed up the White House pressure cooker. “Putting it the way George W. Bush did sounded silly but he was right: the president is a decider,” Lewis wrote. “Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other.”
Amid the chaos, a president needs solid counsel from an experienced hand who’s not going to panic, overreach or make the situation worse. During the Cold War, presidents relied on a set of informal advisers known as “wise men,” Washington insiders, diplomats and/or defense experts who could be trusted to deliver clear advice even in the middle of a crisis.
In The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made, writers Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas describe them: “They shared a vision of public service as a lofty calling and an aversion to the pressures of partisan politics. They had a pragmatic and businesslike preference for realpolitik over ideology.”
Gates would be on a short-list of candidates for modern-day wise men. In the mid-1990s, Gates wrote From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War. As Micah Zenko noted on the Council on Foreign Relations blog last week, Gates wrote, “It was my experience over the years that one of the biggest misimpressions held by the public has been that our military is always straining at the leash, wanting to use force in any situation. The reality is just the opposite. In more than twenty years attending meetings in the Situation Room, my experience was that the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms. Our military leaders have seen too many half-baked ideas for the use of military force advanced in the Situation Room by hairy-chested civilians who have never seen combat or fired a gun in anger.”
This explains why in discussing Benghazi on CBS last week, Gates told Bob Schiefer that some in Washington have “a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces.”
So, what might Gates say to a chief executive caught up in a spiral of controversies? What is the greatest threat facing the nation and its president? Why, Gates says, it’s “the inability of our political leaders to come together on bipartisan solutions, long-term solutions to the very real problems we have. … And unless we can come together on policies to deal with these problems that can survive one Congress and one presidency, then I think we’re in real trouble.”
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EditorBobDavis.