Never in the history of public relations have an institution and its representatives been so mismatched as at the current U.S. Department of State, where, tasked with articulating America’s position toward Middle East terror outfits, Russian aggression, and the world’s other vicissitudes, are Jen Psaki and Marie Harf, currently in the midst of an interminable Lucy-and-Ethel routine as Foggy Bottom’s spokesperson and deputy spokesperson, respectively. In an administration that has always given the distinct impression of being directed by second-year poli-sci majors from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Psaki and Harf are the only two under the impression that Legally Blonde was a documentary — one that they are apparently trying to re-create, with little success, at Foggy Bottom.
Start with Harf, who apparently fell back on government work after losing out on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” anchor job. Talking to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews this week, she proclaimed that since “we cannot win this war by killing [Islamic State fighters] . . . we need in the medium- to longer-term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs, whether . . .” Matthews interrupted before she could offer another possible motive, but we can assume it was not going to be “whether . . . they are Islamic fanatics who enjoy murdering in the name of the world’s second-largest religion.” No, clearly driving the recent spate of beheadings and burnings-alive is the absence of a neighborhood Gap store. That is, it seems, the wisdom bestowed by a master’s degree in foreign affairs at Mr. Jefferson’s University.
Harf has had a difficult time when it comes to the Islamic State. Appearing on Fox News to discuss the administration’s strategy on “extremism,” Harf noted that “there are other forms of extremism that are also important.” Fox host Martha MacCallum asked for examples.
Anyone? . . . Anyone? . . . Bueller?
And discussing the Islamic State’s rise with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in September, Harf argued that “everyone — us, the Iraqis, even ISIL itself, probably — was surprised by how quickly earlier this summer they were really able to take territory in Iraq.” Even those ISIS folks didn’t know they had it in them! Gee whiz! She explained why the U.S. was caught off-guard: “The capability is one thing you can assess, but the will is a tough thing to assess.” Televised beheadings did not tip them off?
But Harf is only half of Foggy Bottom’s PR problem. She is joined by Jen Psaki, whose response to Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine was to tweet out a picture of herself holding a poster that read “#UnitedForUkraine,” flashing a thumbs-up, and smiling like this was actually a good idea. If only Churchill had thought of it! “#StandWithTheSudetenland.”
If Harf seems helpless, Psaki veers toward the downright sycophantic. “The president doesn’t give himself enough credit for what he’s done around the world,” said Psaki in a press briefing last May. Reporters in the room laughed out loud.
And in October, asked whether there were “flaws” in President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” Psaki said that she “wouldn’t say that.” (Ask Egypt’s Copts about Obama’s “flawless” strategy.)
When the very next day she declared that “there have been, certainly, gains made by the Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq,” and she offered to “go through some of those for you, if that would be useful,” the assembled reporters watched her flip awkwardly through her briefing binder before saying, “Um. Well, I’ll find these.”
Last September Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly remarked, in a segment on his show, that “that woman [Psaki] looks way out of her depth over there — just the way she delivers, it just doesn’t look like she has the gravitas for that job” — a comment that earned him a Twitter rebuke from Harf, who later called O’Reilly’s language “sexist, [and] personally offensive.” Setting aside the obvious facts that 1) the official spokespersons of a government agency have no business singling out for criticism a media personality, and 2) those same spokespersons probably have more productive ways to spend their time, Psaki and Harf have not come in for criticism because of their “gender identity,” but because of their Delta Nu approach to diplomatic relations, as if Putin is carefully watching their Pinterest accounts and Islamic State terrorists are following them on Twitter. People in Foggy Bottom’s communications shop really seem to think that those enslaved Iraqi Christians are super-interested in Jen Psaki’s Instagram.
But a crew is only as good as its captain, and the captain for the last six years has been leading not “from behind,” but from a chaise lounge on the lido deck. If Psaki and Harf are often chuckleheaded cheerleaders, it’s in large part because Barack Obama has confused being commander-in-chief with being quarterback. Why wield the sword against Islamist lunatics when you can wield a selfie stick? Don’t these people know who they’re dealing with? This is the preezy of the United Steezy! He’s been on BuzzFeed!
Sure, it is easy to be hard on the Obama administration’s press people. They have the undesirable task of putting a serious face on an administration whose conduct is usually laughably unserious. But if Foggy Bottom seems particularly hapless recently, blame it on the Department of State’s dotty duo.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.