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What 'Chickenshit' Says About the Obama Administration

Calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a 'chickenshit' is merely the latest example of bad judgment from an Obama administration official.
October 31, 2014, 5:25pm
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It seems harmless enough: A top US national security official tells the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that he thinks Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is "a chickenshit." Harmless, because the Israelis have been trash-talking the Obama administration for years, and everyone knows tensions are high between the Israeli leadership and the Obama team.

Not to mention the fact that US officials since the Clinton administration in which I served have, in fact, felt that Netanyahu is chickenshit. In the words of a former top Obama official who dealt with the Middle East, on top of Netanyahu's irritating personality and embrace of inflammatory and counterproductive policies, "he's an accountant." In other words, he thinks small; he's all tactics and no strategy. (This former Obama official also thought his old boss suffered a similar case of policy smallthink.)

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But defending the gaffe misses the point. It is not just that a top US official accidentally let some colorful candor slip out. It's that in doing so, he or she revealed much about the dysfunctional character of this administration's national security team.

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Goldberg is not just any reporter. He is one of the most respected journalists in Washington and known to be an important voice on Middle East matters who is read as closely in Israel and elsewhere in the region as he is inside the Beltway. Further, he is not just a casual passerby in the White House. He has regularly won access to the president and his inner circle — quite a feat given his reputation for candor and this White House's control-freak approach to weeding out and pushing back journalists who don't toe their party line.

So whoever offered up this quote knew precisely where it would land and knew the clout Goldberg wields. That's why there are only two possibilities here. Either the speaker was deliberately sending a provocative message to the leadership of one of America's closest allies, or the speaker is clueless to the degree that he or she should find other employment in a job where less is at stake.

This is another illustration of a key proposition in diplomacy that the current administration doesn't seem to understand: American national security is not a talk show, and dead air is okay.

Many people in narcissistic Washington feel everything is all about them personally. (It is why I moved here and feel so comfortable in this environment.) But public officials of the United States government are never speaking for themselves. They are speaking for the people of the United States. And therefore every word they utter that might conceivably go public must have a single purpose: to advance the national interests of the United States.

The problem, of course, is that venting about Netanyahu doesn't in any way do that; it may have made the speaker feel like a character in Scandal, but there is no constructive message about toughness or frustration delivered by calling Netanyahu chickenshit. It can only damage relations and inflame a bad situation — and it has.

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This would be bad enough if this were a one-off, but it was a symptom of so many other ills in the Obama administration. The way the White House handled it was symptomatic of a certain tone deafness on these issues: They argued that it was not a White House view despite the certainty that it came from a high place in the administration. They even had the chutzpah to suggest to reporters that the leak had come from the State Department.

The quote gives us an idea how top White House decision-makers feel about Netanyahu — but the effort to shift the blame to State gives us an idea of what they think about governing. Apparently lost on them is the fact that the State Department is actually part of the Obama administration, and that someone there saying it would reflect as badly on the president as it would if it were someone whose office were in the White House complex. But this us versus the world Obama leadership team, still in campaign mode six years later, apparently views everyone who doesn't eat at the White House mess as an outsider — and views most of those folks as suspect.

This was hardly the first example of ill-chosen words causing problems for Obama & Co. A New Republic story earlier this year described how national security advisor Susan Rice confronted a Palestinian negotiator after an unproductive meeting at the White House. "You Palestinians can never see the fucking big picture," she told him. There was another incident, reported to me by several sources in Obama's inner circle and by the German government, in which Rice used the term "motherfucker" in a meeting with America's most important ally in a way that offended them. Tough language in the White House is common even if it produces ill-will, and Rice is known for this and the alienation it has engendered.

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I'm from New Jersey, and I have no allergy to tough language. What I object to is bad diplomacy, bad management of vital relationships in difficult times, recklessness, and immaturity in top US officials.

Worse perhaps than the bad language have been other gaffes, most notably the president's painful assertion that the core thesis of his foreign policy is "Don't do stupid shit," followed by the proof that he couldn't live by those words when he asserted he did not have a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.

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This is another illustration of a key proposition in diplomacy that the current administration doesn't seem to understand: American national security is not a talk show, and dead air is okay. It's fine not to say anything if in fact you have nothing to say that will help advance national interests. Should the president lie if he has no strategy? Well, having a strategy would be best — he still doesn't appear to have one for the Islamic State — not saying anything would be second best, and yes, lying would be preferable to letting the world know the president and his team are adrift.

All of this suggests that Chickenshitgate is about more than one goof. It is illustrative of a pattern of errors of judgment that ought to cause some serious rethinking in a White House that thinks it is full of great communicators. First, they must do a better job on substance, which would be abetted if they thought of the rest of the government as partners instead of outsiders. Second, they ought to keep in mind that less is often more on the communications front. In language they can understand: If you can't serve the people's business with what you are going to say, it's best to shut the fuck up.

David Rothkopf is editor and CEO of Foreign Policy, and the author of the new book National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear. Follow him on Twitter: @djrothkopf