Yesterday I interviewed a high-ranking source in the administration who wishes to remain anonymous. To protect his identity, I will refer to him by the clever code name, Carnival Worker.
Carnival Worker and I met in one of those out-of-the-way bistros a block or two from Embassy Row, where he believed the wait staff would be less likely to recognize him from his frequent TV appearances. There, during a time-limited kinetic engagement of medium rare porterhouse steaks and Caesar salads, I asked him, “How do you characterize the Obama Doctrine?”
Carnival Worker made a credible show of choking on a crouton, but to one with journalistic instincts such as mine, it was clearly a stall for time. I offered the Heimlich maneuver, but he declined. I waited. He took a large gulp of the passable house red, “What do you mean,” he rasped, “How do I characterize it?” even though it was obvious he knew exactly what I meant.
I spoke very slowly, in case the crouton had interrupted the flow of oxygen to his brain, “How do you characterize it – describe it. Put a label on it for me.”
I was beginning to worry just a little about that crouton, but my ever-skeptical journo-instincts still told he was being coy. “When people talk about the ‘Bush Doctrine’ it’s pretty clear what is meant – the whole ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us, preemptive strike, black and white worldview’ sort of thing,” I explained. “How do you describe the doctrine that’s guiding the administration’s foreign policies?”
Carnival Worker patted his lips with his napkin. I sensed that, for the briefest of moments, he was about to mop his brow as well. Instead, he took another slug of wine. “Look,” he said, and mustered up his best condescending, patiently tolerant sort of smile, “One of the reasons we’re in such a mess these days is that the previous administration had that sound bite, one-size-fits-all, good vs. evil Unified Theory, labels, and stereotypes view of how everything works. We’re trying to get past all that.”
“You were in the press then,” I pointed out. “Wasn’t the press instrumental in packaging that view of the Bush Doctrine?”
He traced furrows in the linen napkin with his fork, and watched as balsamic vinaigrette made abstract patterns in the material.
“Looking backward doesn’t do us any good,” he said. “What this administration has always been about is going forward – new policies designed to bring us forward into a new era of global prosperity and security.” He looked very pleased with himself when he’d said that, so pleased, in fact, that I couldn’t resist.
“Did you want to write that down before you forget it?” I offered.
He began to reach into his suit jacket for a pen, but caught himself just in time. Instead, he carefully arranged his silverware so left side and right side implements were equidistant from his plate.
“So if they’re all about moving forward and devising new strategies,” I said, “Why does the administration have so many old heads running the show – at least on the international front? Gates, Clinton, Biden – They’ve been around since the Punic Wars.”
Carnival Worker anxiously searched his salad bowl for a crouton, but none were left. I figured it was time to get us back on track.
“What I’m looking for is the central principle that drives this administration’s foreign policy. Certainly, a label will still be just a label, but if it’s built around a core principle, that can be helpful, right?”
Carnival Worker took a deep breath. He mopped his brow with his napkin, leaving a smear of wine and salad dressing across his forehead. I would have told him, but it lent him the air of a youthful Gorbachev, and added to the likelihood that he would not be recognized. “The President’s guiding principle is the spread of democracy and freedom.”
“Is that what led to the decision to engage in Libya?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, with a deep nod, and only a tiny bit of smugness.
“Then how has it informed our decision to remain hands-off in Iran, and Syria, and Yemen,” I wondered aloud.
I felt we were closing in on something important here. I almost leaned forward in anticipation, but I was prevented by the fear of dragging my tie across my plate, and by the look of discomfort on my companion’s face. I knew it couldn’t be a crouton; I wondered if it could be an allergic reaction.
He opened his mouth and his lips moved, but no sounds issued forth. He looked a lot like a bass that had been momentarily relieved to have a hook removed from its mouth, only to discover that it could no longer breathe. That is, if you can imagine a bass with wine and salad dressing smeared across its brow.
I was about to ask our waiter if there was an atropine injector in the house when Carnival Worker finally began to speak.
“That’s different,” he said.
Long ago, I read in a detective novel that silence can be an interrogator’s best weapon. I said nothing, but nodded, hoping he would continue. After a deep breath, he did.
“I mean,” he said.
I favored him with an encouraging smile, and a look that I hoped mirrored that of a student, awaiting wisdom from a master.
“Well really, it’s…” he tried again, and gestured with his hands spread, palms up, over the table. The movement, as far as I could tell, was meant to suggest that the answer was self-evident – not worth explaining – but to me it seemed more the act of a supplicant in some ancient temple ritual. I maintained my look of hopeful ignorance and kept my mouth shut.
“Look,” he said, seeming to suddenly find inspiration in his perfectly-spaced tableware, “You can’t really expect to find a one-size-fits-all approach to these situations. They have to be examined in the light of their unique contexts.”
I nodded, and smiled as if relieved to finally achieve enlightenment. “So what you’re saying,” I proceeded slowly, “is that the principle of supporting democracy and freedom depends on the circumstances.”
“Exactly!” he said.
“I suppose that makes sense,” I volunteered. “We can’t be expected to stick our nose in everybody’s business, after all.”
“That’s right; we can’t. We don’t have the resources for it, since the Bush administration left us over-tasked.
“But if it depends on the circumstances,” I said, “it’s not really a principle, is it?”
His face fell.
“Which brings us back to the original question. Is there a principle at work here, or is the administration making it up as it goes along?”
“Well of course,” he began, only to be interrupted by his telephone.
“Yes, hello,” he snapped. “Oh, hello Robert,” he said, dispensing a “wait a minute” wave in my direction.
“Yes, I’m enjoying the new job just fine. Stressed? No, I’m not feeling particularly stressed. What about you? How’s the yoga working?”
There was a brief burble of unintelligible phone speak at the other end, but I couldn’t make it out.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe you should avoid starches for a while.”
“Ask about you? No, nobody’s asked about you.”
I’m not sure, but I thought I heard sobbing at the other end.
“Hey, look at the time,” Carnival Worker said suddenly, “I’m due to call the President. Gotta go. Glad you got in touch. Yeah. Right. You bet. Thanks for calling.” He snapped the phone shut and dropped it like it had scorched his hand.
“Where were we?” he asked.
“You were just about to explain the role of public opinion in determining our foreign policy,” I said.
“Ah, yes,” he said, but then he stopped. “Was I really?” he asked.
I made a show of consulting my notes. “I certainly looks that way to me,” I said.
He looked confused, and a little unsure of how to proceed. He began with the bass impersonation again. The waitress arrived with the check, and despite his obvious disorientation, he still managed to indicate that I was buying.
“Thanks for lunch,” he said. He added, “I hope we can do this again sometime soon,” but something made me question his sincerity.