President Barack Obama has had two more crises to deal with in the past week. And, as he did with the crises around Somali pirates and a North Korean missile launch, he gave the most public attention to the least consequential crisis, while working heavily behind the scenes on the most consequential crisis.
This time it was the so-called swine flu and the rolling jihad in deteriorating Pakistan. The flu has caused media mayhem, with the cable culture locking on to it around the clock.Officials are, not surprisingly, increasingly confident about the latest flu.
By now, however, the light is starting to dawn that this really is not like the flu in Stephen King's The Stand. If it's really something very different from and more dangerous than the common variety flu -- which kills about 36,000 people a year in America -- you don't see hundreds of people around the country reported as having a different kind of flu. You see people dead all over the place.
The only place anything like that even vaguely appeared to be happening was Mexico, and the death toll there has been scaled back dramatically.
Team Obama probably understood this, since one of the administration's advance men came down with the flu after last month's trip to Mexico. And was back at work in a day. When I get the regular flu, I can be knocked out for a week.
But even though chief Obama political strategist David Axelrod gave a speech recently assailing the cable news culture for being "a carnival" of "extremes," it's not wise to say the media is out to lunch during a potential pandemic. A term, incidentally, which is about communicability, not lethality. And political executives look very good when they and their appointees issue regular statements about how the government is on top of things and protecting the public and giving common sense advice, and so on.
Which measured and authoritative sounding messages Team Obama rolled out on a regular, straight-faced basis. With the notable exception of Vice President Joe Biden, a very valuable player in the administration whose mouth occasionally engages in escapades all its own.Obama played it cool, in public, while some experts began to warn that the crisis in Pakistan was deepening.
On the deep-seated crisis of Pakistan, Obama had very little to say in public. But in private, his administration was heavily mobilized.
Events have accelerated beyond the assumptions underlying the president's new AfPak (Afghanistan/Pakistan) strategy, especially in Pakistan, and much of last week in the administration was taken up with re-strategizing. That included discussions on Air Force One as the president flew back-and-forth for a Missouri town hall meeting on the media milestone 100th day of his presidency and a full-scale National Security Council session before that.Breathless reports on the flu dominated the media environment while Obama moved to deal with the crisis besetting his AfPak strategy.
Obama dispatched Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to meet with the military leaders of Pakistan. Obama himself met with the chairs and ranking minority members of the Senate and House armed services committees, including his defeated rival, John McCain.
And this week, Obama holds a very important trilateral summit with the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, and the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, an event that includes private Obama meetings with each leader.
The Wednesday summit will be key. Obama's new AfPak strategy, announced with fanfare and promise on March 27th, is in danger of unraveling along with the situation in Pakistan, once America's "frontline partner in the war on terror."
The summit will focus on setting benchmarks for economic, political and military progress. There's been major backsliding in each country.
Afghan President Karzai was the choice of the Bush/Cheney Administration, and is no favorite of the Obama Administration. His government in Kabul is seen by most observers as largely ineffective and shot through with corruption.
Pakistani President Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated by Islamic jihadists, would seem to be more on the Obama wavelength. But the government has been ineffective and tentative in dealing with a looming threat from Pakistani Taliban, and has done little about the continued presence of Al Qaeda cadre in its country.
Mullen, back from Pakistan, has reported back that, though Pakistani officials won't disclose the locations of the nuclear weapons -- a long-time point of contention between the US and Pakistan -- they are safe nonetheless. Maybe. Or maybe not. The Pakistani government long denounced reports that A.Q. Khan, seem by many as the principal architect of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program had sold nuclear technology on the black market. Which he had.
The Pakistani government has begun taking a more aggressive posture against the Taliban.
But Mullen said today he continues to be very concerned about the Taliban in Pakistan. "I'm gravely concerned about the progress they have made in the south and inside Pakistan," Mullen told reporters in Washington. "The consequences of their success directly threaten our national interests in the region and our safety here at home."
So Obama has dispatched Defense Secretary Bob Gates to Egypt and Saudi Arabia to discuss various crises, including that of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Speaking to reporters today on a flight to Riyadh, Gates says the Obama Administion wants Saudi Arabia, which he says has "considerable influence" in Pakistan, to place more pressure on the Pakistani government to go after Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre inside Pakistan.
After plenty of preliminary work by his top aides, and behind-the-scenes preparation by himself -- Obama had no public events over the past weekend -- Obama is about to bring the question of Afghanistan and Pakistan back to center stage.
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