Home/Daniel Larison/It Isn’t A Mutiny When They’re Following Orders

It Isn’t A Mutiny When They’re Following Orders

With respect to Alexander Cockburn, he is being far too generous to Obama when he tries to explain Clinton and Biden’s recent statements this way:

At best Obama is presiding over an undisciplined cabinet; at worst, he is facing mutiny, publicly conducted by two people who only a year ago were claiming that their qualifications to be in the Oval Office were far superior to those of the junior senator from Illinois.

It would be gratifying for those of us who have given Obama the slightest benefit of the doubt on foreign policy to believe that his subordinates are sabotaging him, or to put all of this down to poor discipline and headstrong rivals. However, as a recent Michael Crowley article makes clear, this administration is one of the most tightly-run ships in decades, and this is true nowhere more than in foreign policy. The “team of rivals” is notable for the absence of rivals. If the result is “seamless continuity with folly,” which I won’t deny, that is the intended result. The fault is Obama’s, as Cockburn argues later, but his failing is not that he has not controlled his administration well enough, but that he controls it quite well in the service of bad policies. Gone are the turf wars of the Bush administration that occasionally gave realists and war opponents some reason to hope for sanity. “No Drama” Obama has a unified administration that is heading down the wrong, hawkish path. Obama is responsible for these things–we cannot blame subordinates for the President’s mistakes.

Whether Biden’s remarks in Ukraine and Georgia were precisely scripted for him or not, he was saying what Obama wanted said. If Clinton has put forward the nuclear “umbrella” proposal that she previously floated during the campaign, she did so with Obama’s approval. (It may be worth noting here that such an “umbrella,” while far from optimal, is much better than the alternative of launching military strikes against Iran, and it represents a modest turn back towards deterrence and containment and away from “pre-emption.”) As Cockburn acknowledges, Obama does have and always has had “an impeccably conventional view of how the world works,” so we should never have been surprised when he stocked his administration with people who have the same view and endorse policies consistent with that view.

Despite their age, Biden and Clinton may be positioning themselves for a future run at the White House, but their “disloyalty” would require them to be in disagreement with Obama on policy and offer them a way to separate themselves from his agenda. Far from being disloyal and distant from Obama’s goals, they are identifying themselves closely with the implementation of his foreign policy. Cockburn might as well say that Powell went before the U.N. to sell the world on invading Iraq because he was cunningly planning to run against Bush in 2004. As we know from Powell’s experience, the reputation of the leading Cabinet members in our presidential system rises and falls with that of the President, and this is true of the reputation of the Vice President as well. If Biden wanted to turn against Obama in 2011-12, he would make sure that everyone knew that he had been shut out of decisionmaking and he would claim that Obama had been unsuccessful in foreign policy because he had been ignoring his Vice President’s advice. As it happens, the opposite is the case.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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