by Jacob Bilich and Ara Friedman
On Tuesday, April 25, 2018, SFS and the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service hosted an advance screening and panel discussion about the HBO documentary The Final Year, a unique insider’s account of President Obama’s foreign policy team during their last year in office.
Panelists included Ned Price (SFS’05), former spokesman for the National Security Council, Marie Harf, former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry and former GU Politics Fellow, and Greg Barker, Director of The Final Year. The panel, moderated by Dean Joel Hellman, discussed the successes and shortcomings of President Obama’s foreign policy, the dynamic between staff and press, and also the challenges of making a film involving lots of classified material.
Price described the administration’s approach to foreign policy, noting that, “the national security process [in the past few administrations] has been based on a consultative, deliberative process.” He said that while this may lead to inaction and there may be disagreements, “at the end of the day, you’re always going to have a better national security policy.”
Harf reflected on the hard decisions that must be made by a Commander-in-Chief: “One of the reasons we loved working for Barack Obama is that he is thoughtful. And when a person is in that situation, you want them to be thoughtful, you want them to ask questions…[but] on issues like Syria, those questions are unanswerable.”
Greg Barker said the historical effects of President Obama’s foreign policy can’t be evaluated just yet. “I think the flaws that people talk about now are going to look very different in 5 or 10 years. I think it’s frankly just too early to talk about it.”
Price and Barker also reflected on the limits of filming a documentary involving lots of classified material: “The film can only depict what the cameras were allowed to capture,” Price explained. Barker recounted a moment during filming when he pressed Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor to President Obama, to allow more coverage of her responsibilities. “There was a constant push [to get more access],” Barker said.
Discussion during the Q&A session ranged from the relationship between a presidential administration and the press, to the tension between different members of the administration as depicted in the film, to an analysis of the damage to institutions that may be occurring during the Trump administration. On the relationship with the press, Price described a natural tension between a presidential administration and the press corps, but contrasted the tension that existed during the Obama administration with the current one. “It was a constructive adversity, it was a natural adversity,” Price said. “There was not this man-made hostility between the two, with shots across the bow calling them ‘the enemy of the American people.'”