DIRTY LAUNDRY: Ex-Obama Insider Skewers National Security Team

There is a lot of insider infighting.

Palace intrigue

An administration riven with infighting. A commander-in-chief given to  “dithering” on critical wartime decisions. A suspicious and devious White House  staff erecting a “Berlin Wall” around a secluded and standoffish president,  shielding him from those advisers — particularly at the Department of State —  willing to convey unpleasant truths.

It all sounds rather like the sensational literature that proliferated in the  mid-to-late 1970s to chronicle the collapsed presidency of Richard Nixon —  including the description of a White House “Berlin Wall,” originally applied,  with great fanfare, to those much-maligned (and eventually imprisoned) Nixon  aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman.

Instead, it is President Obama’s turn to watch as former aides and  journalists rush into print — with a warp speed that eluded the insider  memoirists of the 1970s — their detailed and dishy accounts of the first Obama  term.

A forthcoming book by former foreign policy aide Vali Nasr paints the above  portrait, describing a president whose decisions “from start to finish were  guided by politics.”

Nasr was a rising academic star, one of the leading scholarly voices on Iran  and the Mideast, when the late Richard Holbrooke tapped him, at the dawn of the  Obama administration, to join Holbrooke at a newly created office of the State  Department: SRAP, short for Special Representative for Afghanistan and  Pakistan.

‘The president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major  foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White  House advisors whose turf was strictly politics.’

– Vali Nasr, former foreign policy aide


The voluble, outsized Holbrooke, one of the most celebrated diplomats of his  age, always on the short list to become secretary of state but never chosen for  the job, was expected to bring his formidable talents — and ego — to bear on  the problem of integrating more fully the often contradictory policies applied  to the two nations so central to U.S. counterterrorism and national  security.

But by the time he died from a ruptured aorta, in December 2010, Holbrooke  had been systematically marginalized by the Obama White House, Vasr writes. Due  out next month, Vasr’s book “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in  Retreat” (Doubleday) depicts Holbrooke and his boss, Secretary of State Hillary  Clinton, waging an often unsuccessful battle to pierce the “Berlin Wall” and  present their views to the president. The book charges that White House aides  used targeted leaks and other means to “undermine” Holbrooke — and worked hard  to cut Clinton out of critical policymaking, too.

“Those in Obama’s inner circle, veterans of his election campaign, were  suspicious of Clinton,” Nasr writes in an excerpt published on  ForeignPolicy.com. “Even after Clinton proved she was a team player, they  remained concerned about her popularity and feared that she could overshadow the  president. … Had it not been for Clinton’s tenacity and the respect she  commanded, the State Department would have had no influence on policymaking  whatsoever.”

State Department spokesmen pushed back hard against Nasr’s charges. “We have  an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency  colleagues,” Patrick Ventrell told reporters at the March 4 press briefing. “So  we really stand behind the record of the progress we’ve made in  Afghanistan.”

Ventrell’s boss, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, said at the March 8 briefing  that she “would reject … completely” the notion that Holbrooke had been  sidelined by the National Security Council. “If you know Richard Holbrooke at  all,” she told reporters, “you know that he was a formidable force in that job,  as he had been in all previous jobs.”

Perhaps most arresting, however, is Nasr’s portrayal of President Obama. The  commander-in-chief is depicted here as “dithering” on key Afghan war decisions,  tasking national security aides with the same questions, rephrased in minor  ways, over and over. Nasr also casts Obama as quick to abandon foreign policy  promises made on the campaign trail and too reliant on individuals unqualified  to weigh in on foreign policy.

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