Schar School Hosts Screening, Panel Discussion of Obama’s ‘The Final Year’ Feature Documentary

By Buzz McClain

From left, Schar School’s Ellen Laipson, Desiree Barnes, Rumana Ahmed and Sergio Aguirre. Photo: Buzz McClain/Schar School.

An audience of about 120 got an advance peek at a new HBO documentary depicting the last months of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team last Thursday at Founders Hall auditorium in Arlington. The film, “The Final Year,” was followed by an hour-long panel discussion featuring three key members of the administration and moderated by Ellen Laipson, the director of the Center for Security Policy Studies at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

“The Final Year,” making its televised debut May 21, follows Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, among others, as they travel the globe meeting with national leaders in a race against time to confirm the administration’s legacy in world affairs.

Panelists included Rumana Ahmed, senior advisor to Rhodes; Desiree Barnes, communications strategist for President Obama; and Sergio Aguirre, former White House National Security Center director.

In introducing the film, Laipson, also director of the Schar School’s Master’s in International Security degree program said the 90-minute movie provides ample examples of “how continuity of government happens.”

The film ends with the election of Donald J. Trump as president, and the principals in the movie are confronted with the dismantling of the policies they struggled to solidify. One audience member at the Schar screening remarked of experiencing a “sensation of cognitive dissonance” watching the Obama staffers confirm the Iran nuclear deal, normalize relations with Cuba and sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Unbeknownst to them, mere months later those policies would be significantly altered by those who followed them in the White House.

As for one of the largest global crises that took place during the Obama years, the war in Syria looms as a disappointment, said Aguirre. In responding to a question from the audience, Aguirre indicated the administration waited too long to take action on a conflict that was disrupting much of the world. The time when policy should have changed, he said, was early in the crisis. By 2013, following an Assad-launched chemical attack that killed 1,000 Syrians, compelling the White House to take action, it was already too late.