Understanding Obama: Perspective, Foreign Policy, And The Limits of Power


I’ve been reading articles about the Obama Administration, partly out of nostalgia, but also out of retrospective interest. The 44th President was an excellent statesman, regardless of how terrible his successor is. But while we're building bomb shelters, Barack Obama is out there, and seems to be happy as can be.

There's a lot of excellent writing about Obama and you should read all of it. But since you're reading this, here are some important excerpts and a little intrepid analysis.

Obama's Way

The first piece that comes to mind is Obama's Way by Michael Lewis who also wrote books like Moneyball, Liar's Poker, The New New Thing and so much else. He somehow convinced the White House to give him access in 2012. This was quite a feat, and the only comparable presidential profile is of Truman by John Hersey in the New Yorker(April 28, 1951!).

Lewis's piece tells us something that's missing in most biographies: A feel of what someone is like and how they think.

It starts with Tyler Stark, an air-force navigator whose plane was shot down during the first days of the Libyan Intervention of 2011. Lewis weaves a narrative on who Obama really is which cannot be divorced from his being the President of the United States. He gives us a feel for the man.

He didn’t really know why he’d been sent here, to Libya, in the first place. He knew his assignment, his specific mission. But he didn’t know the reason for it. He’d never met a Libyan. Drifting high over the desert he had no sense that he was at once an expression of an idea framed late one night in the White House by the president himself, writing with a No. 2 pencil, and also, suddenly, a threat to that idea.

This becomes a theme and tells us, without burying the lead, how little control we really have. Salman Rushdie once spouted a priceless fragment in an interview with the Paris Review that's worth remembering here.

... It challenges Heraclitus’s idea that character is destiny. Sometimes your character is not your destiny. Sometimes a plane flying into a building is your destiny.

Moving on, here's some practical advice from Obama about decision fatigue.

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

and towards the end of the piece, he moves back to the initial premise of the profile, of how much power we do not have, and of the limits of this kind of power.

At that moment there was a curious balance of power between the leader and the led. Tyler Stark was in harm’s way because of a decision Barack Obama had made, more or less on his own. He was at the mercy of another man’s character.

This is an incredible article. It gets better in that we get to know a lot about how Lewis wrote it. He had an hour-long conversation about it at Berkeley.

The Obama Doctrine

I've always been a big foreign policy buff which I think is the most exciting boring-hobby to have. The Obama Doctrine by Jeffrey Goldberg is an excellent long view on Presiden Obama's Foreign Policy, which, perhaps mistakenly, I call enlightened self-interest. The piece begins with Syria, and largely stays there while giving us overviews of Obama's views on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. As we learned from Obama's Way, the views of the President of the United States are more tangible than of most. That is why this quote is so important, and, quite a relief:

Obama would say privately that the first task of an American president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The piece also gives us a view of the people in the Situation Room at every decision including the admirable Samantha Power who I recommend you read more of, and about.

Power, who during this period served on the National Security Council staff, is the author of a celebrated book excoriating a succession of U.S. presidents for their failures to prevent genocide. The book, A Problem From Hell, published in 2002, drew Obama to Power while he was in the U.S. Senate, though the two were not an obvious ideological match.

It also touches on why I admire Obama's statesmanship: His ability(shared by Ben Rhodes, a staffer who the next pick is about) to cut through to the heart of a problem, and make a calm, collected decision; his uncanny instinct to step outside of a situation and view it detachedly.

I first spoke with Obama about foreign policy when he was a U.S. senator, in 2006. At the time, I was familiar mainly with the text of a speech he had delivered four years earlier, at a Chicago antiwar rally. It was an unusual speech for an antiwar rally in that it was not antiwar; Obama, who was then an Illinois state senator, argued only against one specific and, at the time, still theoretical, war. “I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein,” he said. “He is a brutal man. A ruthless man … But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbours.” He added, “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

This is remarkably prescient, considering that he arrived at a better foreign policy judgement than the Bush Administration of the time. These are also things that he took into account during the Libyan Intervention, the semi-failure of which, is a heartbreakingly instructive look at the limits of power.

To understand his views on war and pacifism a bit better, you would do well to watch his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. It was a case for just war which is probably the most readable analysis of the concept by a statesman in history.

“I want a president who has the sense that you can’t fix everything,” he said.

Obama seems to describe himself as an internationalist.

“I am very much the internationalist,” Obama said in a later conversation. “And I am also an idealist insofar as I believe that we should be promoting values, like democracy and human rights and norms and values...."

I'll end my intrepid analysis of his foreign policy with the continuation of this quote, the truest thing that can be said on Foreign Policy as well as any other.

“Having said that,” he continued, “I also believe that the world is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we’re bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognize that there are going to be times where the best that we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that’s terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we can’t.”

What next?

I want to bring your attention to Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power and a couple of other important staffers. I also want to highlight some more interesting features of his administration. I'm planning on writing those, but I have board exams to attend to. Laters, I think, would be le mot juste.