Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted out a request for “your toughest #foreignpolicy questions” as a part of “Big Block of Cheese Day.”
If you weren’t a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, the NBC drama that ran from 1999-2005 and focused on the administration of fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his White House staff, you maybe were confused by the Secretary’s tweet. “Big Block of Cheese Day” occurs in season 1, episode 5 of West Wing and again in season 2, episode 16. On this auspicious day, White House staffers grant meetings to groups that normally wouldn’t merit the time of our busy rulers.
Unlike television, this latest “Big Block of Cheese Day” didn’t involve actual meetings, but rather questions submitted on social media. Still, it’s a nice idea. And it has the added bonus of fitting in with the style-over-substance mise-en-scène of this White House.
For some time, I’ve had the nagging suspicion that many in the Obama foreign policy sphere are playacting at governing. The most glaring example is Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. Rhodes was a wordsmith on the 2008 Obama campaign and before that worked for former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He helped Hamilton craft the Iraq Study Report and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. His Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing comes in handy for a speechwriter, but it doesn’t help much in policymaking. Rhodes is believed responsible for the administration’s dazzlingly awful decision to sell out Egyptian leader and longtime U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011.
And if “Big Block of Cheese Day” weren’t enough, President Obama decided to cure cancer — and to announce it in his State of the Union address. Which is also from an episode of The West Wing (season 3, episode 12).
But it wasn’t until this weekend that the extent to which the Obama administration has gone full-Sorkin came into glorious relief.
In August, the Obama administration “won” the right to implement the Iran nuclear deal by keeping enough Senate Democrats on the reservation to prevent a vote on the matter. Because of a unique procedural setup and the administration’s heavy-handed tactics, Congress was unable to stop the agreement despite the opposition of large, bipartisan majorities in both houses and the majority of Americans.
In October and November, the Iranians test-launched ballistic missiles in violation of international law and specific sanctions against them. At the time, the United States refused to increase sanctions on Tehran. We now know that refusal was tied to ongoing talks over the release of a number of American hostages. Some of the president’s defenders think this is a good thing. Iran has engaged in other aggressive and provocative activities — approaching American warships and firing near them, training weapons on our helicopters, continuing to supply Islamist terror groups and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with weapons — in the intervening months. All designed to test us. All while negotiating with us over the release of innocent hostages they illegally took and kept.
Then, about a week ago, the Iranians boarded and commandeered two small vessels belonging to the U.S. Navy. They “arrested” our sailors, held them at gunpoint on their knees, and released a video of them apologizing for their “mistake.” The video of their “arrest” and captivity is a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions, although, again, the president’s defenders wrongly say otherwise. Though our service members were released quickly, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — the U.S.-designated terror group that runs much of Iran — has been having fun the past few days bragging in public about the victory of its mighty naval forces and claiming that our sailors wept while being arrested. In our culture, that’s distasteful schoolyard machismo. But they don’t live in our culture.
On Saturday — the day the Iran deal was scheduled to go into effect — four American hostages were released. This is good news, without a doubt, and is rightly celebrated by all Americans. But that doesn’t mean the terms of the deal are beyond criticism. In order to win their release, we gave up seven Iranian criminals, most of whom had been convicted of violating sanctions against the Islamic Republic. We further gave up our attempts to arrest 14 Iranians by “red flagging” them with Interpol. Most of these 14 are arms smugglers including people who have helped Iran feed weapons to the ongoing carnage in Syria. After months of negotiation, the best we could do was surrender claims to 21 guilty people and squander the opportunity cost associated with timely ballistic missile sanctions in exchange for four innocents kidnapped specifically for use as bargaining chips. But, hey, wasn’t the timing awesome?
In season 3, episode 15 of The West Wing President Bartlet plays a masterful game of chess with the Chinese as he uses the delivery of Patriot missiles and AEGIS destroyers to Taiwan as leverage to get China to cancel planned wargames near the Taiwan Strait. When a staffer marvels at the wisdom of the president, Bartlet explains that “you have a lot of help, you listen to everybody, and then you call the play.” Sound familiar? Talking over a game of actual chess, Bartlet reminds the staffer that you have to “look at the whole board.”
In a television show, it’s easy to “look at the whole board” if your opponent won’t get a chance to make his own moves. It works that way because in scriptwriting your opponent will say what you tell him to and value what you believe he should. The outcome is predetermined.
The Obama administration continues to govern as if in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. That’s fine when it’s limited to “Big Block of Cheese Day.” But when it bleeds over into things that matter — the fact that Iran will almost certainly be a nuclear power, that the post-World War II non-proliferation regime is now in tatters, that the UN Security Council has had its power fatally undermined, and that Iran is now over a $100 billion richer — the result is likely to be too bloody for primetime viewing.