Great or small, crises require active management.
Whether it is a crisis in a marriage, a crisis in the office, or a crisis in the world, failed management will cause unnecessary damage.
When the Arab Spring began I suggested that the course of events would depend largely how well Barack Obama managed the crisis.
I was not optimistic that a man with no experience in crisis management or foreign policy or negotiation could help bring about a positive result, or even, avert a negative outcome.
Unfortunately, I was right.
Two days ago the New York Times published an extraordinary account of how Obama mismanaged the Arab Spring. Reported by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth, the story offers an object lesson in how not to manage a crisis.
As I mentioned in my post about Michael Gordon’s Times story of Obama’s mismanagement of the Iraq exit, when a newspaper that is normally very supportive of Obama publishes an important story that makes the president look bad, it gains extra credibility.
The Times deserves credit here for great journalism.
As the story opens, Obama is telling Hosni Mubarak to resign his office. Mubarak tells Obama that he is so young that he does not know the reality of the situation in Egypt. Obama does not care. He does not care about history, about Mubarak’s status as an ally or about the advice of his foreign policy team.
Obama is so arrogant that he believes he can ignore everybody because he knows best.
Cooper and Worth tell the story:
President Hosni Mubarak did not even wait forPresident Obama’s words to be translated before he shot back.
“You don’t understand this part of the world,” the Egyptian leader broke in. “You’re young.”
Mr. Obama, during a tense telephone call the evening of Feb. 1, 2011, had just told Mr. Mubarak that his speech, broadcast to hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, had not gone far enough. Mr. Mubarak had to step down, the president said.
Minutes later, a grim Mr. Obama appeared before hastily summoned cameras in the Grand Foyer of the White House. The end of Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Mr. Obama said, “must begin now.” With those words, Mr. Obama upended three decades of American relations with its most stalwart ally in the Arab world, putting the weight of the United States squarely on the side of the Arab street.
It was a risky move by the American president, flying in the face of advice from elders on his staff at the State Department and at the Pentagon, who had spent decades nursing the autocratic — but staunchly pro-American — Egyptian government.
Colin Powell’s old line comes immediately to mind: you broke it; you own it.
Acting on his own and no one else’s beliefs, Obama took ownership of the Arab Spring, and the coming Arab Winter.
Cooper and Worth obviously had access to many senior administration officials, so we must conclude that these officials are trying to shield themselves from the fallout of the Obama-produced calamity.
Now that he has stepped in it, Obama feels that he must defend the Muslim Brotherhood because he was instrumental in bringing it to power.
He must downplay the calamities that are being visited on the region as “bumps in the road” because his mismanagement of the situation incited them.
He must refuse to declare the assassination of Ambassador Christopher Stevens a terrorist attack because he believed that the only real problem with the region was the American support for autocrats.
Having withdrawn that support, Obama imagines that terrorism will automatically vanish.
As Cooper and Worth describe it, the current calamitous situation in the Middle East is the president's responsibility.
In their words:
Nineteen months later, Mr. Obama was at the State Department consoling some of the very officials he had overruled. Anti-American protests broke out in Egypt and Libya. In Libya, they led to the deaths of four Americans, including the United States ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. A new Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood was dragging its feet about condemning attacks on the American Embassy in Cairo.
Television sets in the United States were filled with images of Arabs, angry over an American-made video that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad, burning American flags and even effigies of Mr. Obama.
Speaking privately to grieving State Department workers, the president tried to make sense of the unfolding events. He talked about how he had been a child abroad, taught to appreciate American diplomats who risked their lives for their country.
That work, and the outreach to the Arab world, he said, must continue, even in the face of mob violence that called into question what the United States can accomplish in a turbulent region.
Cooper and Worth point to two other character flaws that make Obama the wrong man to manage this crisis.
First, as Bob Woodward’s recent book pointed out, Obama does not like diplomacy and does not know how to negotiate.
Second, he has not bothered to develop personal relationships with any of the players. Perhaps he thinks that because he is Obama he does not need to make friends with world leaders.
Most likely, he does not know how to develop good personal relationships… based on amity, comity, trust and confidence.
Cooper and Worth describe the problem:
The tensions between Mr. Obama and the Gulf states, both American and Arab diplomats say, derive from an Obama character trait: he has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders. “He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him,” said one United States diplomat. “But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions.”
Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.
Obama sees himself as an intellectual, even as a great thinker. He maintains relationships with a few sycophants, people who will massage his ego, but he tries to relate to ideas, not to people.
In Obama’s fictional world the Arab street will rise up and joyfully embrace America because he freed them from despotism.
Crisis management requires very sophisticated people skills. It requires a network of friends, of people with whom you are on good terms, whose trust and respect you have gained.
No one will want to business with you otherwise.
The Obama approach has aggravated tensions in the Middle East. It has empowered radical Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. It has alienated important allies. It has endangered Israel. It has lowered the esteem that people have for America.
Cooper and Worth summarize:
Still, there remains concern in the administration that at any moment, events could spiral out of control, leaving the president and his advisers questioning their belief that their early support for the Arab Spring would deflect longstanding public anger toward the United States.
For instance, Mr. Feltman, the former assistant secretary of state, said, “the event I find politically most disturbing is the attack on Embassy Tunis.” Angry protesters breached the grounds of the American diplomatic compound there last week — in a country previously known for its moderation and secularism — despite Mr. Obama’s early support for the democracy movement there. “That really shakes me out of complacency about what I thought I knew.”