Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coaching Barack Obama

Looking at events in the Middle East I recalled an old Bob Dylan verse: “… something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”

For our current purposes, we will substitute Mr. Obama for Mr. Jones.

Given that our current president seems especially clueless about the crises in the Middle EAst, the pundit class has been weighing in with advice and counsel.

But there are pundits and there are pundits, and it is good to distinguish among them.

While some pundits are glorified reporters; their beat is still the facts, others offer a big picture narrative, whether mythic or historic. Others still seem to think that they are drama critics.

Some report the facts; some speculate about the meaning. But all of them are looking for the narrative. They are in it for the story. Or better, for the drama. Their overarching question is most often: Why? Wanting to look at why it's happening, they have little to say about how to change the course of events.

Another class of pundits sees the event less as a drama and more as a game. A game has rules and players and moves.

But it also has its pundit class. Some members of this group cheerleads from the sidelines. Some analyze the play of the game. Still others, attempt to coach the participants, to help them improve their game.

This morning Leslie Gelb, former Defense and State Department official, former New York Times columnist and former chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an article where he tried to coach Barack Obama on how to conduct foreign policy in the increasingly tumultuous Middle East. Link here.

Gelb leans left politically, but, for better or for worse, he is a member in good standing of the foreign policy establishment.

Gelb begins with a refreshing dose of honesty and modesty: “To be blunt, I don’t know anyone who has the foggiest idea where these revolutions from Algeria to the borders of Saudi Arabia are going or whether future leaders there will be true democrats or new dictators. Sure, we all hope that present autocratic friends will help with a peaceful and orderly transition toward real democracy. Sure, we all hope that their successors will be both real democrats and sympathetic to American interests.”

I have occasionally made the same point. And Gelb is right to advise Obama against getting swept up in  hope.

After all, hope is not a policy; it’s a campaign slogan.

Gelb doesn't say it, but he seems to know that our president is overwhelmed by events, and that confidence building measures are needed.

A leader who is in completely over his head will be more likely to become paralyzed or to overreact. Gelb seems especially worried that Obama will do something incautious and immoderate, thus aggravating the situation.

Gelb has a special challenge here. The player he is coaching has never played the game before. Neither Obama nor his Secretary of State seems to have any idea about how to manage the crisis.

That 3:00 a.m. phone call has just arrived. And no one knows what to do. It's like coaching a Super Bowl team whose quarterback who has never taken a snap or thrown a pass and whose running back has never carried the ball.

If you are coaching this duo, you are seriously worried. Yet, as a patriotic citizen, you decide to do your best. In your heart of hearts you are wishing that you had more time to break in your quarterback and running back in smaller, more controlled, arenas.

It would be bad enough if there were just one game going on. Unfortunately, there are different games occurring in different countries. Most often we do not know which game is being played where, what the rules are, or even who the players are.

When last I turned on the news, no one seemed to know who formed the opposition to Qaddafi in Libya, what they want, where they stand, and so on.

Leslie Gelb knows that it is not political theatre. He knows that he is not a drama critic. He avoids the temptation to roll it all up into an overarching narrative, one that allows us to believe that we understand what is going on.

In this case, the most common narrative involves a great revolution that is going to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East.

But he does refer to historical parallels, properly so. He is not the first to do so. Some have said that the events recall the Iranian Revolution of 1979; others that they resemble events of 1917, 1848, or even 1991.

There is much to be learned from the study of history. Yet, there is history and there is history. You teach history one way to people who want to become professional historians and in another way to people who want to become policymakers.

The first group will emphasize uncovering and organizing data. Its goal will be to construct a story that explains why things happened as they did.

The second group studies history the way generals study past battles or the way chess players study past matches.

They want to see how different games were played by different players in the past. They want to show which moves were effective and which led to calamity.

If you see yourself as a player, a potential player, or simply someone who wants to root his judgment in reality, you  do best to see history as the record of the way games have been played.

That will give you a better sense of what is really going on and how well or poorly different games are being played by today’s participants.

Of course, people who set policy are not just analyzing the past. They are setting forth an action plan for the way they will deal with a future relationship or crisis.

All of this is well and good, but how do you coach people who have no experience? Or who have none of the knowledge that can only be gained by experience.

Absorbing every detail about the game of golf while never taking club in hand does not make you a golfer. If you have never played the game you are lacking a certain kind of knowledge. Coaching can guide the acquisition of that knowledge, but it is far more difficult to do so when your team suffers from gross inexperience. In situations like that a coach will start thinking that he should put himself into the game.

Recent polls tell us that the American people are losing confidence in Obama's leadership. Link to latest Rasmussen poll here.

Americans sense that neither Obama nor Clinton know how to play the game of foreign policy crisis management.

I will close with a question. How much do you think that the course of world events is being influenced by the leadership vacuum in the American government?


flynful said...

I don't quite agree with you that the crux of the problem is inexperience. If I were an Iranian mullah, I would be reading Obama as signaling, as loudly as he can within the confines of his political situation as leader of the Democrat party, that he does not like Israel and will NOT support Israel politically or militarily in the event that war breaks out in the middle east. I would also give Obama a less than 50/50 chance of reelection. This, then creates a window for mischief that will likely close at the beginning of 2013. This scares the hell out of me and keeps me awake most nights. I really hope my reading of the tea leaves is wrong.
Steve G

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I do think that he is inexperienced and that he is in way over his head. Sending Hillary Clinton to Geneva was about as poor a response as could have been crafted.

Beyond that, I think that your point is well taken. I think that Obama really does not like Israel... I am not sure that he knows it, but his attitude toward Israel and his policy toward it speak very loudly that he is not a friend of Israel.

I also like your idea that there is a "window for mischief" that he has opened and that it is likely to close by the beginning of 2013.

Surely the mullahs understand this. In fact, this morning in the NY Times there's an article saying that the Iranians are the ones most likely to profit from the turmoil.

And as a number of people have said, keep your eye on Bahrain.

Thanks for the comments.

flynful said...

I readja every day.

Why I don't think it's just a lack of experience is that I can't see that there has been any on the job training going on. My opinion is that the Obama response would be the same whether he was on the job 2 months, 2 years, or 20 years.

My surprise is Hillary, who is proving herself to be just as inept as Obama, who I refer to the as the Dope. (He earned the title and it is so fitting.)

Obama: The phone is ringing. It's 3:00 a.m. Hillary, it must be for you.

Hillary: No, it can't be for me, and are you sure it's 3:00 a.m. My watch says 2:59 and the call must be for you. I'm going out for some coffee.

Obama: You're right. It must be 2:59. I'll join you. Let Valerie answer the call. She won't understand anything that is said (no matter who is calling) and she can fill us in on her take when we get back.
Steve G

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point. I agree with you that he seems to be singularly inapt to learn from experience.

I can't say that I was disappointed in Hillary, since I did not really expect anything from her to begin with.

I am not sure where the Hillary mystique comes from, and what form of worship it embodies, but it is surely one of the more unsavory aspects of our current politics.

flynful said...

Don't you remember when (based solely on hero worship and nothing else) she was reputed to be one of the 100 smartest attorneys in the country?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I had managed to forget that one. I think it was part hero worship, part martyrdom, and part political correctness designed to present the Clinton marriage as a marriage of equals... the better to appeal to certain voters.

Micha Elyi said...

That's right, doc. Those with a soft spot for 'Hillary!' are freebasing some combo of feminist wishful thinking and traditionalist pity for the wronged woman. Hollywood certainly considers it a chick-magnet brew; they've made a TV series based on it, The Good Wife).

Answer to the exit question: Almost everything the Establishment Media considers important.