Axelrod’s foreign-policy role

In the run-up to Election Day 2008, much was made of candidate Barack Obama’s astonishing lack of foreign-policy experience (or useful experience at all, save for campaigning for office) — and appropriately so.

The Obama salve for that gaping hole was to tag a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden (D-Del.), as his running mate, to calm the jitters even many loyal Democrats had about the untested senator from Illinois who had served less than a year in office before deciding he was ready to be the leader of the free world.

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But both Biden’s and Obama’s gaffes have cast a dangerous cloud over the administration’s credibility regarding international affairs, in addition to domestic and economic issues. After blundering by taking nearly full credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, bowing to leaders of foreign countries and committing the lesser discourtesy of offering inappropriate gifts to the queen of England, Obama is inspiring reactions ranging from discomfort to alarm with his clumsy, naïve and inappropriate utterances and manners when addressing foreign affairs. 

President Obama’s most recent stumble was to refer to a Nazi death camp — one of several in occupied Poland, where millions of Jews perished in the Holocaust — as a “Polish death camp.” That the president of the United States would err in such a way as to allude to some sort of responsibility on the part of Poland in the death of millions of Jews is shocking. That the administration’s response is to merely express “regret” is disturbing. 

This one cannot be blamed on Joe Biden, and has reverberations and consequences.

So how, one might ask, does a still-wet-behind-the-ears president who took measures to fill the international experience void with a foreign policy guy as his veep still make such incredible mistakes?

We got the answer this week. The New York Times reported that President Obama’s chief political operative, David Axelrod, attended the highest-level meetings on terrorism and sat in on discussions about which high-value terrorist targets would be on the Obama “kill list.” It’s unclear what other types of meetings dealing with sensitive international matters Axelrod was present for. What is clear is that Obama places political implications for his own reelection fairly high on the list of consideration when deliberating matters affecting the nation’s security in a post-9/11 era. Axelrod in the room even lends the impression that his own political health is the No. 1 consideration for such presidential decisions.

George W. Bush was pilloried throughout his presidency for entrusting Vice President Dick Cheney with nearly unprecedented influence on foreign policy and defense. Democrats glossed over that he’d been a long-time congressman, White House chief of staff and, importantly, a secretary of Defense. Cheney was uniquely qualified for the job, and to have a special focus on defense and international affairs.

About the worst campaign challenge for Obama would be if Republicans or a responsible media outlet hell-bent on committing actual journalism would provide a side-by-side of the qualifications of Cheney to those of Axelrod.

Scratch that.

About the worst campaign challenge for Obama would be if a GOP-led House committee with oversight authority were to investigate the influence on national security matters of President Obama’s political adviser. Unlike slithering out of any association with Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen (who visited the White House 35 times and whose business partner is a former Obama White House communications director) after her televised accusation that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” while raising five boys, battling breast cancer and MS and serving as first lady of Massachusetts — the Axelrod role is undeniable. And inappropriate. And alarming.

The moral imperative to track down, capture and kill terrorists is ours. Of that there is little doubt. Placing an unelected political hack — however talented he might be — in the same room as elected officials and those who by necessity are to have no political agenda when dealing with a dangerous world contaminates the process and the trust of the American people and the world. For a president so prone to mistakes, missteps and gaffes on the international stage, and who harbors an expectation we must ignore his transgressions in deference to the spirit of good intentions (or whatever), that cover is blown when David Axelrod is just offstage, whispering lines to the commander in chief.



Jacobus is a political/public affairs consultant. She has worked on Capitol Hill and managed congressional campaigns, and now appears on CNN, MSNBC, PBS and other venues.