July 7, 2014. 9:00 a.m., EST
The meeting in the Oval Office was set for 9:00 a.m. sharp. Thus, Vice President Bo Fitzgerald had left the Old Executive Office Building and walked across the street to the White House, entering the West Wing lobby at precisely 8:45 a.m. He had been up since 6:00 a.m. prepping for the meeting. His ever-faithful secretary of thirty-five years, Jane Woodhall, a once-attractive woman in her late sixties, in bad need of a lifestyle lift, had made up a series of 3x5 index cards with overly-large print, so that the Vice President, always aware of the fact that, at seventy-two, he was the oldest member of the team, would not have to resort to using reading glasses. He had considered using Grecian Formula Number One to add touches of black to his already white hair, not unlike the recently appointed anchor of a cable news network who had, over the course of six months, gone from elderly white, to a sort of George Clooney, salt-and-pepper look. Vice President Fitzgerald was, however, aware that his early hair transplant, though infinitely more attractive than the bald pate it had replaced, had become the object of derision amongst right-wing radio talk show hosts. Thus, he was not about to give them more ammunition with which to take potshots against him, despite the certain knowledge that a more youthful appearance gave him a better chance against Edie Washington Howell, should he decide to run for his party’s nomination two years hence.
After entering the West Wing’s first floor lobby, he turned right, and then left, and made for the Vice President’s ceremonial office, where he would wait until the appointed hour for the President’s Briefing, which would take place in the Oval Office. At 8:55, he exited his ceremonial office, and turned right; ducking into the office of Chief of Staff Henry Clevinger, simply to make sure that the meeting was still on, and about to take place in the Oval Office. Clevinger was the equivalent of the Angel with the Fiery Sword stationed by the Almighty at the Gates of Eden, to keep Adam and Eve from returning to Paradise. But, on this particular morning, neither Clevinger nor his secretary, or “executive assistant” in the current, gender-neutral parlance of our times, was in the office.
Fitzgerald ambled down the hallway, passed the offices of various staffers, passed the Roosevelt Room on his left, and the President’s Private Dining Room and Study on his right. He made a left at the Roosevelt Room, and turned right into the President’s Executive Assistant’s office. Valerie Jeffers, the President’s E.A., looked up, smiling her condescending smile, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Vice President.”
“Top of the morning to you, too, Valerie. We all set?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “Didn’t you get the memo?”
“Didn’t you get the memo” were the words Vice President Fitzgerald had come to loathe.
No, he thought. He never got the memo! It was the latest in POTUS’ unending series of slights against the older man, who had once made the dreadful mistake of calling then-Senator Rafik Mohammed Kabila “The first mainstream African-American who was articulate, bright and clean… I mean, the guy is light-skinned, with no discernible Negro dialect – unless he needs it.”
Though Fitzgerald had apologized profusely, and publicly, the fact that Kabila had chosen Fitzgerald as his running mate had less to do with POTUS-Elect’s acceptance of the older man’s apology, and more to do with the fact that he wanted to deny the second-highest office in the land to Edie Washington Howell. He never wanted it to be said that an African American and a former First Lady were any kind of Dream Team. Indeed, Fitzgerald brought nothing to the ticket, which is why Kabila chose him. He wanted the victory to be his, and his alone. Moreover, he secretly relished the thought of humiliating everybody’s affable, crazy Irish uncle for the next four years.
“The meeting has been switched to the Situation Room, Mr. Vice President. I believe they’re already in session.”
This, of course, added another level of humiliation to the start of Fitzgerald’s morning. He exited Valerie Jeffers’ office, turned right, passed the conference room, and the President’s secretary, passed the press-staff offices, and the Press Corps Briefing Room, and the Press Corps Offices, thus making sure that members of the Fourth Estate saw him hurrying along, obviously late for yet another meeting.
This led him down into the White House basement, and yet another set of minor humiliations, as he passed through the lobby, sundried offices, the Wardroom, the Videoconference Room, the Briefing Room, the Navy Mess and Kitchen, and, finally, into the Situation Room, to which he was admitted by the Marine sentry on duty. As he entered the Situation Room, CIA Director James Francis Doherty interrupted his briefing in mid-sentence, and gave Bo Fitzgerald a smiling and understanding look.
“Morning, Bo. Glad you could make it,” POTUS said drily.
“I’m sorry, Mr. President,” Fitzgerald said, with as much dignity as he could muster. “Someone failed to notify me of the change in venue.”
“No problem,” said President Kabila. “We’re just getting started. Francis, would you mind briefly bringing Bo up to speed?”
“Of course, Mr. President.” As CIA Director Francis Doherty skipped through his notes, and backed up through his PowerPoint presentation, Vice President Fitzgerald quickly looked around the room. It was the full National Security team, plus one. The plus one in question was, as always, Attorney General Steadman, one of POTUS’ oldest, most trusted friends and confidants.
The National Security team included National Security Advisor Deborah Wheatley, a visibly hungover and puffy-eyed Secretary of Defense Dick Gaynor, the always pompously well-coiffed Secretary of State Jack O’Leary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Matt Tunney, CIA Director James Francis Doherty, Acting FBI Director Jack Profitt, Acting DEA Director Mrs. Graciel Esteves, and POTUS’ ever-present political advisor, Mallory Mohsen.
Fitzgerald could not help but think that he’d never seen a room so full of people who had such obvious disdain for one another.
Both he and Secretary of State Jack O’Leary had run for the Presidency themselves, and both thought themselves infinitely more qualified than the former Junior Senator from Motown, who now sat in the black, high-backed leather chair at the head of the long wooden table and called the shots.
As for POTUS, he took the same opportunity, and glanced around the room, and the thought hit him, not for the first time, that, aside from Attorney General Steadman, he was the only black man in attendance in a room full of nothing but Irishmen, and Graciel Esteves, Acting Director of the DEA.
Actually, that wasn’t 100% correct. POTUS had more right to call himself an Irishman than did Jack O’Leary.
POTUS’ maternal grandfather was an affable, drunken WWII vet named Jim O’Callaghan.
Jack O’Leary’s grandfather, after whom he was named, on the other hand, was the former Yasha Levy who, upon arrival at Ellis Island, decided to shed himself of the burden of anti-Semitism, and was reborn as Jack O’Leary.
The dumb putz actually thought it was a step up to be an Irish Catholic, POTUS thought to himself, and smiled ruefully.
It was not lost on him that both O’Leary and Fitzgerald concealed, in their secret heart of hearts, the ironic jealousy they both felt for the color of POTUS’s skin.
If only they had been born black, POTUS knew they believed, they would have been sitting in the high-backed leather chair at the head of the wooden table themselves.
He felt a surge of righteous indignation against the key members of his own inner circle who were, indeed, not a team of rivals, but of men who harbored deep resentments and genuine loathing for one another, and their Commander in Chief.
Well, tough noogies, POTUS thought. I won.
CIA Director Doherty had now arranged his notes, and his PowerPoint presentation. The point of today’s sudden, but in no way emergency, meeting was that a message had come in from Hamid Berzingi, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. The Peshmerga, the military force of the autonomous region, had just captured a senior ISIS operative.
“You mean ISIL,” POTUS interrupted.
ISIS stood for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Syria was not a name which POTUS allowed to be tolerated in his presence, ever since its dictator, Bashar al Assad, had stepped across POTUS’ hastily-declared, and ill-conceived, redline of using chemical weapons against his own people.
In the showdown between them, POTUS had blinked first.
He had absolutely no intention of revisiting that most humiliating episode of his Presidency. Thus, ISIS was always to be referred to as “ISIL”, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” CIA Director Doherty corrected himself. “The Peshmerga have recently captured an ISIL operative.”
The operative in question, Yehyeh Al-Masri, claimed to have direct knowledge of what he said would be a mass-casualty attack against the United States heartland, carried out by ISIL, and, somehow, involving members of Mexican and South American drug cartels, as well.
The Peshmerga were evidently willing to trade Al-Masri for heavy weapons, which they desperately needed to fight off the growing threat from ISIL, whom they believed were spreading from non-Kurdish Iraq and Syria into the heart of the autonomous Kurdish region.
They were on the verge of capturing Mosul, had basically obliterated the border between Iraq and Syria, and were claiming the lands they had conquered for the Caliphate, or Islamic State, run by their charismatic leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi’s parting words to his former American captors, upon release from his prison cell at Camp Bucca, where he had been held as a “civilian internee”, were “See you in New York.”
For his part, POTUS wanted no part in taking custody of an ISIL terrorist.
“I mean, if we did that, it would make us an ISIL target. It would give them an excuse to kidnap American personnel, to negotiate for the release of this Al-Masri. I don’t want any part of that!”
Indeed, POTUS wanted no part of ISIL, nor, for that matter, anything to do with the entire Middle East, from which he had been trying to extricate the United States for the first six years of his Presidency.
“I mean, are you all new here? Do you not know that’s the policy of my administration? To get us out of the Middle East, instead of finding ways to allow ourselves to be dragged back in!”
Most annoying, though POTUS did not mention it, was that POTUS would have to cut short his Fourth of July holiday. Not only because of this Peshmerga nonsense, but because the Israelis were making his life difficult for a change. Both they, and Hamas, looked as if they might begin lobbing rockets, mortars and bombs at each other again, in the wake of the kidnapping of three Israeli schoolboys somewhere in the Hebron region of the Palestinian Authority, where they had no business being in the first place, and thus no one to blame for the kidnapping of the three Israeli schoolboy settlers, but themselves.
Israeli Prime Minister Akiva “Kivi” Natanel, would, of course, have taken issue with that last comment. Indeed, Kivi Natanel, whom POTUS thought of as nothing more than a kind of redneck, Jewish, bull-headed cowboy, had the unmitigated gall to publicly upbraid President Kabila, in the Oval Office, no less, for exactly such a suggestion.
POTUS had stated, quite rightly in his own mind, that the presence of five hundred radical Jewish settlers, artificially implanted in the clearly Arab city of Hebron, with several hundred thousand Palestinians residing therein, amounted to little more than a needless provocation, and an impediment to the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, which POTUS viewed as essential.
POTUS was indeed one of the key proponents of the theory that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the heart of all of America’s problems in the Middle East, and that America was paying a disproportionate price for its support of the Jewish state, and thus inflaming the passions of all its surrounding Arab neighbors.
POTUS had delivered that last observation in his usual polite, but stern, and indeed dismissive, professorial fashion. Kivi Natanel, on the other hand, had responded with ill-concealed disdain for what he charitably viewed as President Kabila’s naiveté, if not his downright sympathy for Israel’s enemies. This was evidenced by what he considered the massive indignity of the President of the United States bowing to a Saudi monarch. It was, Kivi Natanel reasoned, the gesture of a Moslem schoolboy, and not the President of the most powerful nation on earth.
Thus, Kivi Natanel had the effrontery to lecture the President of the United States in his own Oval Office.
“With the greatest respect, Mr. President,” he said, “the five hundred Jews living in Hebron, the second-holiest city to the Jewish people after Jerusalem, can hardly be called either artificial, nor an implant. Indeed, we are the aboriginal people, not only of Hebron, but of the land of Israel. We speak the same language, Hebrew, as our forebears did four thousand years ago, we worship the same God, we read the same holy book, the Torah, that we did four thousand years ago, and any Israeli high school student can read the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written seven hundred years before Mohammed was born, as easily as he reads the sports page in his local newspaper. If anyone is a foreign implant, it is the people whose language, religion, and culture differ completely from that of the original Canaanite inhabitants, and whose religion was born two thousand, seven hundred years after the patriarch Abraham purchased, in Hebron, the tomb for himself, his wife Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachael, and Leah. These are the founders of our religion. Hebron was also the city in which King David reigned, before he came into Jerusalem, and it had a constant Jewish presence for four thousand years, until its inhabitants were massacred by their Arab neighbors in 1929, which was not only before there were any settlements in the West Bank, and any so-called occupied territories; it was before the creation of the State of Israel itself. To call Jews ‘foreign occupiers’, or ‘artificial implants’, in Hebron or Jerusalem, is like calling Frenchmen ‘artificial implants’ in Paris.”
It was a masterful presentation, and Rafik Kabila came off looking like a child talking to a man.
To make matters worse, a photograph had been making the rounds of the internet, which featured a picture of a very stoned twenty-year-old Ralphie Sukerto, as Rafik Mohammed Kabila was then known, during his Whittier College undergraduate days. Ralphie Sukerto was smiling a stoner’s sloppy grin, and sporting a kind of Superfly, half-baked afro.
In contrast, there was a picture of a twenty-year-old Kivi Natanel in combat fatigues, weapons belt, and an Uzi submachine gun, looking very much like an early seventies incarnation of Rambo, while serving as a lieutenant in one of Israel’s most elite commando units.
The only visual contrast that put Kabila in a more negative light was the photograph of POTUS in a Styrofoam bicycle helmet, pedaling around Martha’s Vineyard, compared with a photo of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin, astride a snorting, galloping steed, looking like a cross between a Native American warrior-chieftain, and Genghis Khan.
Putin stripped off his shirt faster than a drunken sorority girl on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
But the implication could not possibly have been clearer, especially to one who touted his street cred as a black man. Vladimir Putin and Kivi Natanel could whup Rafik Kabila on the best day he’d ever had.
Now Kivi Natanel was exploiting the kidnapping of the Israeli schoolboys to launch an all-out offensive against Hamas’ infrastructure on the West Bank, in what had been dubbed Operation Shuvu Achim, or, “Return Our Brothers”.
POTUS rightly suspected that the operation was not so much an all-out search for the schoolboys, as a much sought-after opportunity to crack down on Hamas’ growing popularity in the West Bank.
“How do we know,” POTUS asked, “that this isn’t just another attempt on the part of the Kurds to drag the US back into Iraq?”
“Well, we don’t know it for sure, Mr. President, until we have the opportunity to evaluate the intelligence they’re offering us.”
“What we do know, Mr. President,” interjected General Tunney, “is that ISIS is getting stronger by the day.”
“ISIL,” corrected National Security Advisor Wheatley, noticing her boss all but twitch like Herbert Lom reacting to the mention of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, in the Pink Panther movies.
“Whatever,” said General Tunney, who regarded Wheatley as a rank amateur, a political hack who had no business commenting on international policy, regardless of being the President’s national advisor on same. “What we do know,” he said, “is that they’re gobbling up territory. They’re expansionist, and they make no bones about their desire to strike at the West. I believe, sir, we would be remiss, at the very least, if we did not seriously consider that this intelligence might just be of vital importance to our nation’s security.”
POTUS sat there for a bit. He hated this. Truly hated it. It was like the Al Pacino character in The Godfather: Part III. Every time he tried to get out of the morass that was the Middle East, they kept dragging him back in. That, in turn, reminded POTUS of Little Stevie Van Zandt’s impersonation of Al Pacino’s delivery of the same line in one of the opening episodes of The Sopranos. Was that the pilot episode? he wondered. He’d have to get someone to pull that up. He loved that show, though his wife, Jocelyne, couldn’t stand it. But then, there were so many things that Jocelyne couldn’t stand. She couldn’t stand him filling out brackets on ESPN during March Madness. She thought it was beneath The President’s dignity, which just proved that she had no real political instincts. People loved the fact that he filled out brackets; it made him an average Joe. Whereas, they couldn’t stand all her organic garden nonsense, and taking pizzas off of school menus. I mean, he knew it played to the base of radical, organic, anti-virus-shots, upscale, Upper-West-Siders, but filling out brackets cut across party lines. He was one of the guys. He could be white, and black, at the same time. East Coast and Midwestern. SEC and PAC-12. In fact, this year, he thought, Oklahoma State might just have a chance. Of course, there was always the possibility that a school like Florida Gulf Coast could come along, and spoil everything. What was that new kid Oklahoma State had?
“Mr. President,” he heard General Tunney say, pulling him out of his reverie.
“Yes,” POTUS replied tersely, realizing that he had completely lost his train of thought.
“He was talking about the Israelis, Mr. President,” Bo Fitzgerald said, thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to get back at POTUS for the memo that had never arrived.
“Actually,” said Jack O’Leary, in his stentorian tones, “He was talking about what we do about the proposed trade for this Al-Masri character that Kurdish Prime Minister Barzini has just offered.”
“Actually,” said Acting FBI Director Jack Profitt, “it’s Hamid Berzinji who is the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan. Barzini was Don Corleone’s nemesis in The Godfather.”
“Great movie,” said a still very hungover SecDef Gaynor, finally finding a point of reference in the conversation he could relate to.
“Look,” said POTUS. “The most I’m willing to do is, uh… Y’o, send a team to evaluate…”
I wish he wouldn’t say “y’o” like that, thought Mallory Mohsen. It’s his tell. Every time he says it, you know he’s off script. She made a mental note to send Ralphie, she was one of the few people who still thought of him as Ralphie, a memo to knock that stuff off. No more “y’o’s”, no more “you knows”, no more “uhs”.
“…Y’o… You know, uh,” said the President, “whether or not uh… This supposed intel is, uh, y’oh, you know, of any value to the US…”
“It could just be another attempt,” said Bo Fitzgerald, “on the part of this Barzini character to drag the US back into Iraq.”
POTUS flinched at the second Godfather “Barzini” reference from Crazy Uncle Bo, but let it slide.
“Well, make no mistake,” he said, slipping into campaign-speak. “That is something I, under no circumstances, am willing to do. I don’t care what happens to the Kurds. We are not going back into Iraq. Period.”
Mallory Mohsen made another mental note to send a second memo to Ralphie, telling him not to say “period” anymore. It had too many negative connotations about the failed healthcare rollout of the previous year. People didn’t need to be reminded of that, especially with the upcoming Senatorial elections within the next few months.
POTUS looked around the room. The truth was, in addition to the feeling of true personal disdain for most of the people present, POTUS deeply distrusted his military, the CIA, the FBI Counter-Terrorism unit, and the DEA, all of whom he regarded as a bunch of cowboy holdovers from a bygone era of US interventionism, intent on finding enemies everywhere so they could bolster their various budgets, at the expense of the domestic programs which he intended to be his legacy. This has got to be the summer we do immigration reform, he thought. If we lose the Senate, it’s dead in the water.
“Mr. President,” said General Tunney insistently. “You were saying the most you’re willing to do… Is what?”
POTUS looked around the room. It was as if the TelePrompTer in his mind had suddenly gone blank. The most he was willing to do was…
“…Appoint a team to evaluate whether or not the information that this Al-Masri has is of any use to the US, or if this is just another attempt by the Kurds to drag us into Iraq, which is something you have told us, in no uncertain terms, that you are unwilling to do.” said Deborah Wheatley, proving yet again what an invaluable aide she was to Rafik Kabila.
She’s kinda hot looking, too, thought President Kabila, but yielded not to the temptation to let his thoughts drift again. “Precisely,” he said.
Thus, POTUS reached a decision, which many came to regard, increasingly as the Kabila Theorem:
TAKE AN ACTION, DESIGNED TO POSTPONE A DECISION, AND APPOINT AN ESSENTIALLY POWERLESS BODY TO DO IT.
“Okay,” POTUS said. “Y’o. I want a representative from the CIA, a representative from the Defense establishment, one from the DEA, and one from FBI Counter-Intelligence.” He looked around at each head of the of the various departments he had just ticked off, as if in so-doing, he had acknowledged their importance, and was acting in their interests.
“Matt, Francis, Jack, Graciel, I want you each to pick top people from your agencies. The best you have. You have this team assembled within twenty four hours. They are to travel, at my personal direction, to Kurdistan, in order to evaluate the intelligence that the Kurds are offering on this Al-Masri character.”
“And who, exactly, will command this team?” asked CIA Director James Francis Doherty. This was, after all, not his first rodeo.
“No one,” said POTUS, with what he hoped resembled Solomon-like wisdom. “I want a consensus opinion to be arrived at by a team of equals, with no outside pressure from anyone. And,” he added, “I want them to report directly to me. With all due respect to everyone present, I don’t want any one agency running this show. This is a Presidential team, not a CIA, FBI, military, or DEA team. Is that clear to everyone?”
Everyone around the room nodded.
“I need to hear that, for the record.”
“Yes, sir,” said CIA Director Francis Doherty.
“Clear as a bell,” chimed in Acting FBI Director Profitt.
“Understood,” said Acting DEA Director Mrs. Graciel Esteves.
“What, exactly, is State’s role in all of this?” asked Secretary Jack O’Leary, sounding more and more like a Muppet character every time he spoke, thought POTUS. Sam the American Eagle, that was the Muppet he sounds like!
“I’d be happy to chair the team, Mr. President, to provide an objective point of reference.” said the VPOTUS. “I mean, I don’t have a dog in this fight, sir. My loyalty is to you.”
“Not necessary, Bo.” said POTUS. “Though, of course, your loyalty is noted, and, as always, appreciated.” Clean negro, my foot, thought POTUS. Then, he continued evenly. “Now, if there’s no further business, I have a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills to get to. We’ve got a Senate election to win. Besides, if you ask me, I’m convinced, y’o, these ISIL clowns are all-in-all nothing but a JV team of wannabes, wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys.”
“Mr. President,” said Jack O’Leary.
“Yes, Jack,” answered POTUS impatiently.
“There are still some unanswered questions, sir.”
“Of course there are.” said POTUS, and left the room.