Opinion: Appointments With Destiny
by Michael Widlanski
After elections, the real power game begins.
Leaders leave legacies by their appointments, not just their policies, and such selections often have greater long-term effect than a speech or ideological course.
Cabinet members, army generals, intelligence directors, judges, ambassadors and other advisors leave a heritage of their own that can last for years after the leaders have themselves left office.
President Abraham Lincoln chose talented men from among those who competed against him in country courtrooms or in the national arena for the presidency. Lincoln wanted to have the best possible minds around him in difficult times—people of imagination and experience who rose above partisan feuds and personal grudges.
Sadly, this is rarely the case in modern democracies, and the two important elections in America and Israel give us a chance to see if the recently re-elected Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu measure up to the standards of Honest Abe.
One of the smart things about President Lincoln was that he did not overly indulge the opinions of his somewhat flaky wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
In his first term, Netanyahu apparently paid untoward attention to the advice of his wife, Sara, and her favorite advisor, Nathan (Natkeh) Eshel, who headed the prime minister’s office staff but was forced to leave after admitting charges of improper behavior with an attractive office worker.
Despite this violation, Mr and Mrs. Netanyahu apparently still look to ex-staff chief Eshel as a source of guidance, and they planned for him to handle some of the important coalition talks. Eshel sometimes leaves a sloppy trail, and he mistakenly sent an email about his assignment to the opposition Labor Party leader.
Meanwhile, in Washington, Barack and Michelle Obama have an almost intimate relationship with Valerie Jarrett, a lady who, like Eshel, is not widely known to the public but who casts a big shadow across the White House lawn.
Outside the Beltway, few realize just how important Jarrett is to policy and staff decisions because she holds the vague title of policy advisor, but in real terms she is a kind of super-chief-of-staff and First Buddy, a close personal friend of both Obamas, often escorting them to the living quarters at night, almost tucking them in.
When Jarrett, who was born in Iran and speaks Farsi, disagreed with the ideas and conduct of two presidential chiefs of staff and one national security advisor—Rahm Emanuel, William Daley and General Jim Jones—she pushed them aside.
Jarrett starred at a White House confab for Iran supporters—the day after an Iranian-aided attack on Israeli tourists in July, and it is not likely anyonel called her to task. Indeed, The New York Times quoted an unnamed senior official describing the Iranian attack as “tit for tat” for Israel’s reputed assaults on Iran’s atomic programs.
Obama and Netanyahu are now making a whole new set of appointments for their respective second terms, and it is worthwhile asking about the quality of their new nominations as well as the appointments of their first term.
In his first term, Obama’s national security and foreign policy team, aside for Hillary Clinton, was marked by yes-men with weak security and foreign policy backgrounds like Leon Panetta (CIA and Defense) and national security advisor Tom Donilon. Panetta was budget specialist, while Donilon was a lawyer-lobbyist more at home discussing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac than Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s second term promises more of the same. His new cabinet secretaries will not likely contradict or question the boss on matters ranging from Russia and Iran to Egypt, Syria and Israel: John Kerry replacing Clinton, Chuck Hagel for Panetta and John Brennan replacing David Petraeus at CIA.
Like Obama, Kerry was always in favor of reaching out to stroke the bloody hand of Bashar Assad of Syria, while Hagel always doubted the virtue of getting tough with Iranian ayatollahs. Brennan, who serves as counter-terror aide to Obama, has always been scrupulously sycophantic in referring to President Obama in public appearances.
It is hard to imagine Brennan as CIA director taking a strong independent stance—the kind of imaginative and independent voice on terror and intelligence whose absence the 9-11 Commission said was an underlying cause of the 9-11 attacks.
The US and Obama continue to face major economic difficulties of painfully slow growth and huge debt. In his first term, Obama chose Timothy Geithner to head the treasury while urging a Federal Reserve policy of printing more and more dollars. Those weak dollars are a heritage that will probably outlast Obama and Geithner.
After Geithner left, Obama picked Jack Lew , whose signature, Obama joked, looks like a lot of squiggles and zeroes. But all those zeroes add up to big problems.
In Israel, meanwhile, one of Netanyahu’s greatest successes was insisting on hiring Stanley Fisher as governor of the Bank of Israel, and on backing sound money policies that have led to higher growth and employment in Israel than almost anywhere else in the Western nations of the OECD.
Unfortunately for Israel, Fisher has just decided that eight years on the job are quite enough, and Netanyahu will have to find a competent Finance Minister and gifted Bank of Israel director to help implement sound economic policies, at a time when there are loud populist calls for unrestrained spending to cure social ills.
Whether in Jerusalem or Washington, picking the right people for the tough jobs will still be an important barometer of success.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. A former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers and The Jerusalem Post, he was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and teaches at Bar Ilan University.