A longstanding split in President Obama’s second-term national security team has broken into the media through a series of carefully orchestrated leaks to Politico, the Daily Beast and the New York Times. What Obama doesn’t know, according to sources close to the White House, is that some members of his own White House staff are behind some of the leaks.
White House senior staffers are growing alarmed that the inner circle of Obama advisors—Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and even the First Lady Michelle Obama—are shielding the president from much-needed advice, including from senior Cabinet officials, and that the administration’s foreign policy is beset by internal conflicts. Unless these conflicts are resolved, they fear, President Obama’s legacy will be shattered.
On two crucial foreign policy fronts, the conflicts between National Security Advisor Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry have reached a critical point. Prior to his recent Middle East tour, Kerry was “instructed” by Rice to press the Egyptian interim government to free former President Mohammed Morsi and threaten further cuts in military aid unless Egypt accelerated the steps towards a new constitution and free elections. Rice insists that General al-Sissi, the popular head of the Egyptian armed forces, be blocked from running for president, and that U.S. aid to Egypt be tied to his agreement to stay out of the elections.
But, with backing from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kerry ignored Rice’s instructions, and never mentioned the Morsi trial during his private meetings and public press conferences in Egypt. The “realist” troika of Kerry, Hagel and Dempsey had opposed any cuts in U.S. military aid to Egypt, while Rice, an architect of the “humanitarian intervention” doctrine had argued for a much steeper cut in the aid. The compromise satisfied no one, and deepened the internal rifts.
A similar Administration conflict was exposed in the New York Times over the U.S.-Afghanistan negotiations concerning the Bilateral Security Agreement that will determine the continued U.S. military presence in the country after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops at the end of 2014.
President Hamid Karzai has already made concessions on two crucial issues: American soldiers and contractors will be subject to American, not Afghan law, and will be permitted to enter Afghan homes during counter-terror missions. In return, Karzai has demanded a statement from President Obama acknowledging “errors” during the U.S. occupation. Kerry argued that this was a small price to pay for securing the continued U.S. engagement. As a crucial meeting of the Afghan loya jirga was beginning on Nov. 20, Rice issued a statement from the White House rejecting any such apology.
The public airing of the conflicts between the “humanitarian interventionists” and the “realists” in the Obama administration has further eroded the President’s credibility. David Gergen, a Republican, who played a crucial role in navigating President Bill Clinton through the crisis of impeachment, has called for President Obama to replace his top White House staff with experienced, non-partisan outsiders—or face a further disintegration of his presidency. Gergen, along with former Democratic Senator Tom Daschle have been rumored to be two possible candidates for this White House cleanup.