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Narcissist in Chief?

Walter Russell Mead

An ex-Syria negotiator says that the White House was more interested in posturing and politics than in dealing with the Syrian meltdown. Writing in Politico, Frederic Hof, the Administration’s former Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the U.S. Department of State, declares that “I Got Syria Wrong”—but it wasn’t just him. In his most damning paragraph, Hof tells us:

And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say.

These days some of the most powerful criticisms of President Obama’s foreign policy are coming from past administration appointees—and from officials still serving. Hof’s article follows a series of damaging leaks revealing that the President doesn’t listen much to advice, even from many of his own advisors. As Eliot Cohen wrote in his TAI column, a “pervasive contempt for the views of others […] prevails in particular at the White House”. That’s not surprising when, as Hof charges, this administration tailors policy to flatter its preconceptions more than to fit the crisis at hand.

The president and his defenders can say that this represents the grumbling and dissatisfaction of people whose advice was rejected—fair enough. But if people thought that U.S. strategy in Syria was in any way successful or something to be proud of, the dissidents wouldn’t be leaking. Nobody leaks to the press about being wrong.

We will never know if President Obama would have had more success had he followed the advice of those inside who warned him against his current Syria course—but it’s as clear as can be that the course he has actually followed has led to one of the most humiliating failures of American foreign policy in many years. It’s the reality of presidential failure, not the natural unhappiness of people whose advice was rejected, that drives the public expression of dissent by so many Obama appointees.

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