In Which Fred Hiatt Misses the Point

This editorial by Fred Hiatt details the second term failures of the Obama administration in accurate and devastating fashion, which is why I am disappointed that it ends up going downhill by the end:

The administration was surprised when Russian President Vladimir Putin swallowed Crimea. It was caught flat-footed by the crumbling of Iraq and emergence of an al-Qaeda state. Now the region is “a cradle of violent extremism,” Obama’s attorney general said last week. But the president is uncertain how to respond.

Increasingly friends and foes around the world seem comfortable disrespecting the United States . In Egypt, a court sentenced journalists to prison hours after Secretary of State John F. Kerry left Cairo expressing confidence in the government’s commitment to democracy. U.S. ally Bahrain, home to the Navy’s 5th Fleet, expelled an assistant secretary of state. Days after Obama visited the Philippines to support rule of law in the South China Sea, China towed a massive oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam and, Vietnamese officials said, intentionally rammed two of their ships.

Obama visited Berlin in 2008, promising to build bridges between continents that had “drifted apart” in the Bush era. Now Germans are furious at the United States for spying on them. Burma, which Obama recently claimed as a foreign-policy successlast week sentenced four journalists to 10 years of hard labor, one of many signs that reform there has stalled or worse. China barred a U.S. scholar from visiting and rounded up dissidents immediately before last week’s U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogueIsrael and Hamas are drifting toward war after Obama’s second failed effort to broker a peace accord.

Hiatt’s conclusion is that all of these failures (and others that he lists–read the whole thing) point to the president’s need to ask himself “whether his team is making the best of whatever difficult circumstances it cannot control.” He also says that “a president needs are people who will challenge his thinking and, when necessary, tell him news he would rather not hear.” That’s all fine and good, and to the extent that Hiatt is claiming that the junior varsity team currently running the executive branch ought to be benched in favor of some star players, he is right.

But it is not enough to blame the failures of the Obama administration on bad staffing. Indeed, it is my understanding–and I am pretty sure that I am right about this–that the president is ultimately responsible when the people he appoints and nominates to consequential government positions screw up on the job. So, while the second term personnel ought to take its share of the responsibility for the fact that the second term has–oh, how shall I phrase this?–failed to live up to optimistic expectations, President Obama should put both feet forward and accept that his leadership has been lacking as well. Teams of rivals are nice and good, but the absence of a team of rivals does not excuse an absence of leadership at the top.