Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The controversy machine v the reality machine

Last week a Facebook friend (what would we do without them, thanks EC) linked to a substantial Vanity Fair profile of the POTUS, Obama's Way, written by Michael Lewis. I read it end-to-end, and found it an impressive portrait.

Make no mistake: I see plenty of shortcomings in our current president's current term of office: his failed promise to close Guantanamo and end the U.S. government's dark engagement with torture and indefinite detention; 'normalization' of assassination by unmanned drone; health care reform that fell far short of Single Payer (but there's always the next couple of decades to clean that up, right?); a failure to restore tax rates to Clinton-era levels, minimum; a bank bailout that failed to radically tighten regulatory oversight of rapacious Wall Street firms, whose unconstrained and short-sighted greed set the world sliding into the Great Recession. And so on.

But what impressed me about Lewis's profile -- the more so in contrast to the buffoonish team nominated by the G.O.P. to lead the United States government for the next four years -- is Barack Obama's fitness to perform the job that this moment in history calls for, the leadership that today's reality demands.

What is that reality?

Let's take a detour. Earlier this month, KQED radio's It's Your World replayed a discussion that took place on 31 March 2012, From Longitudes to Latitudes: Is There a Rising South-South Economic Zone? Participant Uri Dadush, Director of the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, spoke on the topic of a key (though certainly not sole) aspect of 21st century reality: the current economic revolution.
People like to think of a revolution like the French Revolution, occurring on a particular date, but in fact revolutions are typically thirty to forty year processes before that symbolic date and after that symbolic date. And in that sense we're in the middle of a revolution where a very large part of the developing world is catching up in a historic process by absorbing, essentially, by absorbing technologies which the advanced countries invented or an accelerated level of technology, which occurred at some time during the industrial revolution, which itself was a thirty to forty year process about two hundred plus years ago [...]
Dadush explains his projections of shifting trade balances -- which he describes as conservative estimates -- in which trade directly between developing countries, now about 15% of all global trade, will become 40% of total global trade by about 2050. Moreover, he sees a world in which:
China, even under very conservative assumptions, much slower rates of growth than what we have seen recently, nevertheless becomes the center of world trade. Virtually every country in the world has China as its main trading partner.
This economic reality revolution is perhaps most striking, in Dadush's telling, when considering the world's largest economies:
[...] by 2050, six of the seven largest economies of the world will be developing economies, today's developing economies, according to my projections, which, again, I think are conservative. Even today, four of the largest seven economies of the world are, in international prices, at U.S. prices, are developing countries: Russia, Brazil, China, [and] India. And, by 2050, only the United States among the advanced countries will be in the top seven, and they will be number two, after China.
This is reality that demands the type of leadership that the Barack Obama profiled by Michael Lewis is suited to provide. From Obama's Way, here are excerpts from a section about two-thirds of the way through the profile, in which the POTUS has called a meeting, in 2009, soliciting advice about whether and how to engage in the then-emerging revolution against Muammar Qaddafi's government in Libya:
In White House jargon this was a meeting of "the principals," which is to say the big shots. In addition to Biden and Gates, it included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon (who had organized the meeting), and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (on a video screen from New York). The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. "Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates," says one participant. "They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view." Says another person at the meeting, "He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do."

Before big meetings the president is given a kind of road map, a list of who will be at the meeting and what they might be called on to contribute. The point of this particular meeting was for the people who knew something about Libya to describe what they thought Qaddafi might do, and then for the Pentagon to give the president his military options. "The intelligence was very abstract," says one witness. "Obama started asking questions about it. 'What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?'" It didn’t take long to get the picture: if they did nothing they'd be looking at a horrific scenario, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered. (Qaddafi himself had given a speech on February 22, saying he planned to "cleanse Libya, house by house.") The Pentagon then presented the president with two options: establish a no-fly zone or do nothing at all. The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. "He instantly went off the road map," recalls one eyewitness. "He asked, 'Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?'" After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, "I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room."

Asked if he was surprised that the Pentagon had not presented him with the option to prevent Qaddafi from destroying a city twice the size of New Orleans and killing everyone inside the place, Obama says simply, "No." Asked why he was not surprised -- if I were president I would have been -- he adds, "Because it’s a hard problem. What the process is going to do is try to lead you to a binary decision. Here are the pros and cons of going in. Here are the pros and cons of not going in. The process pushes towards black or white answers; it’s less good with shades of gray. Partly because the instinct among the participants was that … " Here he pauses and decides he doesn’t want to criticize anyone personally. "We were engaged in Afghanistan. We still had equity in Iraq. Our assets are strained. The participants are asking a question: Is there a core national-security issue at stake? As opposed to calibrating our national-­security interests in some new way."
Shades of grey and constant recalibration are what leaders grapple with if they're leading on any large scale at all. Axis of evil may make a concise sound-byte; pretending that Russia is still the United States' "Number one geopolitical foe" twenty-three years after the Soviet Union collapsed may play to those who long for a simplistic world-view -- but reality is more complicated than that.

Michael Lewis again, on Obama's decision about intervention in Libya in 2009:
All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, "We don't need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening." Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn't have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, "It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was "Why aren't you doing anything?" The next it was "What have you gotten us into?" As one White House staffer puts it, "All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That's because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine."
That one White House staffer only got it right if s/he was speaking about the news media and campaign buffoonery. Because in the actual, nuanced world, the world we actually inhabit, the reality machine will most certainly outlast the controversy machine. And then some.

Thanks to the Library of Congress via Parhamr and Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Miehle Printing Press and Manufacturing Company, circa 1905.


  1. What I find sadly ironic is that when the publicity about this article first came out earlier this month, the news reports were all focusing, mostly negatively, on the representation of Obama's competitiveness (referencing the quote about the shuffleboard, etc.). Talk about sound bites and the controversy machine.

  2. @bma -- That is both sad and ironic. I didn't follow the articles about the articles so I didn't realize that. Talk about missing the forest for the trees....