In recent weeks, the US President Barack Obama has been granting a series of valedictory interviews designed to shape the image that history would end up granting him. One recurrent theme in all these interviews is the president’s musings about his “team” which he calls “almost a family” that he notes, with lyricism laced with a dash of nostalgia, will not be around him after he has left the White House.
Every American president, at least since Ulysses S Grant, has had his own “family” of close and trusted advisers cast in the role of the core of a Praetorian Guard to tell the president the truth and protect him against foes and, in some cases, even friends. Often that “family” consisted of the president’s friends and associates from his home state.
Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington with a small army of Georgians who reminded many of the Hillbillies of the popular TV serial about backwoodsmen who came to town. One member of Carter’s clique Hamilton Jordan who served as his Chief of Staff, admitted in his memoirs that he was taught by the wife of the Egyptian ambassador how to properly use the knife and fork in an official banquet.
Ronald Reagan moved to Washington with his California pals. It was under Reagan that the term “Kitchen Cabinet” found mass circulation because the former Hollywood star liked to discuss big issues around a kitchen table with a handful of aides. George W Bush brought more Texans than was good for his administration.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Obama, too, should, have his own “Kitchen Cabinet.” So, who are the members of Obama’s “family”? Before we open the portrait gallery, a few points must be made, indicating that Obama’s “Kitchen Cabinet” is in many ways different from the one set up by his predecessors.
First, in all previous “Kitchen Cabinets” members were recruited from among individuals with some degree of experience in government, at least at state level. Those who had no government background had a CV that contained some experience in business and commerce.
Obama’s “Kitchen Cabinet”, however, as we shall see, consists of individuals with little or no government or business experience. Next, all previous “Kitchen Cabinets” were either exclusively male or heavily dominated by “men in suits”. In Obama’s “family” however, females form the majority.
Previous “Kitchen Cabinets” were almost exclusive clubs of White men of European roots and Christian faith. In Obama’s “family”, ethnic, specifically black, minorities are represented in key positions of power. The choice of personnel reflects Obama’s belief, expressed in his book “The Audacity of Hope” in this way: “A steady attack on the white race serves as the ballast that could prevent the ideals of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.”
Also according to his two books it was sometime in his twenties that Obama finally settled the question of “becoming black or white”, ending up fully adopting the black side of his racial identity.
Previous “Kitchen Cabinets” reflected a certain diversity regarding the educational background and political sensibilities of the members. In Obama’s version, however, almost all members are trained lawyers with a left to left-of-center ideological streak dating back to their youths. And, yet, in his book “The Audacity of Hope”, Obama has written this: “I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers.” Well, his inner circle didn’t include any engineers, let alone an economist.
To be sure, Obama, at first unsure of himself because of his inexperience and a realization that though he had won the presidency he did not control the Democrat Party’s machine, tried to adopt an “inclusivist” posture. He nominated Joe Biden as his Vice President, knowing full well that the Delaware Senator lacked the charisma and the energy of youth to even dream of stealing the limelight. Obama also appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State to buy enough time to dismantle the networks that the Clintons had created within the party. Choosing Robert Gates, a lackluster former head of the CIA and a Bush-Republican as Secretary of Defense, was also part of Obama’s “inclusivism”, as was the appointment of Timothy Geithner, another operator close to the Bush clan, as Secretary of Treasury.
The men brought in in the context of “inclusivism” all ended up realizing that Obama was anything but inclusive. They discovered a leader who surrounded himself with a small circle of confidants and ignored or circumvented whatever advice provided by those bearing lofty official titles in his administration.
That Obama was not a team-player is instantly clear from the books published by his former associates notably three former Secretaries of Defence, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s book also portrays Obama as a president who would have no qualms about by-passing the formal structures of power to impose policy options developed by his inner circle on a semi-formal basis. The Former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner develops the same theme in his memoirs, blaming Obama for adopting policies that he knew would be counter-productive solely to assert his own authority.
More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry, an outsider to the “Kitchen Cabinet”, has publicly moaned about not being listened to on Syria. “I was alone,” he says,” in suggesting action that was opposed by others within the administration.”
Almost eight years later it is now clear that Obama never intended granting any of those “outsiders” from his “family” any real share of power. He didn’t want to become a mere mask, this time with the politically correct shade of black, behind which the establishment could continue exercising power.
But who are the key members of the “family” that Obama says he will miss once his presidency is terminated?
The first and, perhaps, the most influential member, is the president’s wife Michelle Obama whose exemplary behavior as First Lady has done much to raise the prestige of his presidency. In 2008, in a conversation in Evian, France, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the man who had introduced the future presidential couple to each other, told me that Michelle was guardian of Barack’s “blackness.”
Eight years later, we know that Michelle has never let her husband forget “the sufferings of Afro-Americans”, a suffering that did not affect Barack’s ancestors on either side of his parentage. In her address to the Democrat Party convention last July, Michelle told the world that every morning as she woke up in the White House she remembered the sufferings of the black slaves who built it. (The fact that the White House in its present shape was completed in 1952, almost a century after the abolition of slavery in the US didn’t matter!)
Next to Michelle Obama, the most influential figure in the Obama “family” is Mrs. Valerie Jarret, a lawyer who was born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1956 while her black parents worked in a local hospital. Ms. Jarret first became a friend of Michelle by approving her demand for a job in the Chicago municipality where they both lived. Jarret fits well into the cosmopolitan pattern of Obama’s “family” not only because of her Iranian childhood but also thanks to her mastery of the Persian and French languages, acquired during her parents’ lengthy career building phases outside the United States.
Jarret’s official titles have induced such esoteric shibboleths as Head of the Office of Engagement, Intergovernmental Affairs and Special Adviser to the President. But she is, in fact, more influential; than any official title might suggest. She indicated her power by piloting the so-called “Iran project” under which Obama sidelined the United Nations Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the US Congress and, eventually even the Iranian legislature to concoct the so-called Iran deal” which no one has ever signed or submitted to any legislative procedure.
To send a strong message of friendship to Iran, Jarret also used her influence to create a network of Iranian-American officials and interns inside the White House while helping promote the Iran Lobby set up by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to improve the image of the Islamic Republic in the United States.
The next influential member of the Obama “Kitchen Cabinet” is another black female lawyer, Susan Elizabeth Rice, who, although born in Washington, like the president and Jarret, has family roots outside the United States, in this case Jamaica.
Rice has been Obama’s favorite foreign policy adviser since he launched his presidential bid in 2008. She served as Deputy National Security Adviser to learn the ropes of the bureaucracy before being transferred to the United Nations as US Ambassador for a stint of diplomatic training on the job. She came back full circle to serve as National Security Adviser.
The next key member of the “family” is Samantha Powers, another lawyer who like Obama, Jarret and Rice has family roots outside the US. In her case she was born in Ireland to Irish Catholic parents. Having served on Obama’s foreign policy staff, Ms. Powers, a former journalist, has ended up as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Judging by the books she has authored, Ms. Powers shares the core beliefs of the Obama “family” regarding the United States’ foreign policy. That belief is that the US has often acted as an arrogant power riding roughshod over other nations and their legitimate interest. It is, therefore, important that the US adopt a lower profile and try to make amends for the harm it has done to others over the decades.
That belief system was hugely responsible for the Obama administration’s failure to even understand the Syrian tragedy as it unfolded in 2011. In 2012, there came a chance to end the Syrian crisis with a compromise secretly negotiated through Lebanese and Syrian contacts with Bashar Al-Assad under which the Syrian dictator would step aside, rather than step down, allowing the formation of a transition authority to seek national reconciliation and pluralist elections.
Interestingly, the staffers dealing with Syria in the NSC and the State department solidly backed the initiative which may or may not have succeeded. However, Obama ended up vetoing the package and publicly stating that President Assad “must go” while also ruling out any move to realise that goal. Jarret, Rice and Powers were the three witches or three graces if you prefer, in that sordid saga.
The “family” includes two male members who wield much less influence than the ladies mentioned above. One is the 40-year old Jake Sullivan, also a trained lawyer and also with an Irish family background who served as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, a position he used to draw closer to Obama and his intimate circle. He also has a history of working for Hillary Clinton during her first presidential campaign in 2008 and is widely tipped to become National security Adviser if she wins the White House.
Sullivan attracted Jarret’s attention by conducting the first series of secret talks in Muscat, Oman, with the Ahmadinejad administration in Tehran. According to Ali-Akbar Salehi, Iran’s Foreign Minister at the time, Sullivan’s mission had been to “sell the family silver” which he did with extra zeal. “When we told the Supreme Leader what the Americans had offered us in Muscat, he couldn’t believe it,” Salehi later remarked.
Finally, mention must be made of the 39-year old Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications. A self-confessed failure as a novelist, Rhodes has tried to write history partly by deceiving the US media with regard to the so-called “nuclear deal” with Iran. Rhodes started moving up the ladder when he was recruited as one of Obama’s speechwriters in 2007 as the future president prepared for his 2008 presidential campaign.
We met Rhodes at a lunch with a group of other journalists in London in 2009 when he spent most of the time talking about himself, leaving us with the impression of a man obsessed with self-aggrandizement. President Obama provided him with a good opportunity to indulge in that sport when he asked Rhodes to write his famous “Cairo Speech”. Rhodes did that with some gusto, deploying his lyrical energies to come out with a long and largely meaningless speech whose sole effect was a signal to Egyptian Islamists that the US was jettisoning her long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak and would be prepared to work with a future government led by the Muslim brotherhood.
Rhodes is routinely blamed for having persuaded Obama to stab Mubarak, and other Arab allies, in the back. That charge however exaggerates Rhodes influence. The decision to shift the US Middle East policy away from its traditional allies toward a putative new alliance with Iran and its allies was worked out by Jarret and Rice and hastily adopted by Obama himself.
Obama’s family also has a number of cheerleaders on the margins, men and women like the Chief of Staff Denis McDonough who, on occasions, has been able to attract the president’s attention to real life outside the “family” cocoon. NSC senior director Peter Lavoy has also been able to extend the leash fixed by the Three Graces, at least on issues concerning India and Pakistan.
Finally, there is the Egyptian-American Robert Malley, another lawyer with a cosmopolitan background and 1960s style view of the world in which the US is more of a force for evil than good.
Well, that’s the “family” that Obama says he will miss. The question is whether or not anyone else will also miss it.