The second half of September looks as if it will be worse than the first half:
After days of anti-American violence across the Muslim world, the White House is girding itself for an extended period of turmoil that will test the security of American diplomatic missions and President Obama’s ability to shape the forces of change in the Middle East.
Although the tumult subsided Saturday, senior administration officials said they had concluded that the sometimes violent protests in Muslim countries may presage a period of sustained instability with unpredictable diplomatic and political consequences. While pressing Arab leaders to tamp down the unrest, Mr. Obama’s advisers say they may have to consider whether to scale back diplomatic activities in the region.
It may be time to rethink what we’re doing over there:
The upheaval over an anti-Islam video has suddenly become Mr. Obama’s most serious foreign policy crisis of the election season, and a range of analysts say it presents questions about central tenets of his Middle East policy: Did he do enough during the Arab Spring to help the transition to democracy from autocracy? Has he drawn a hard enough line against Islamic extremists? Did his administration fail to address security concerns?
That’s a problem, as is this bit of chaos:
In a disastrous day for the NATO force in Afghanistan, four American troops were gunned down Sunday by Afghan police, a U.S. airstrike killed eight Afghan women foraging for fuel on a rural hillside, and military officials disclosed that a Taliban strike on a southern base had destroyed more than $150 million worth of planes and equipment – in money terms, by far the costliest single insurgent attack in 11 years of warfare.
The confluence of events underscored some of the conflict’s most damaging trends: an unrelenting tide of “insider” attacks, in which Afghan forces turn their weapons on coalition allies; the daily loss of civilian lives to war’s ravages; and the continuing ability of insurgent forces to inflict disproportionate havoc on the far more powerful Western military.
Maybe we need to rethink this too. Obama, long before he was president, had said that he wasn’t against all wars, just dumb wars, like the one in Iraq, which he ended. We left when we were asked to leave, per the agreement George Bush signed with the Iraqis the year before young George disappeared in a puff of smoke, never to be seen again. Yes, John McCain and a few other Republicans were livid – we should still have troops there even now, fighting the good fight and then staying on there for many decades, just to be a symbolic presence in the region, and Obama was a coward and failure because he didn’t go over there and set those people straight, making them change their minds about their foolish notions of independence and sovereignty. But no one else was livid. America had had enough of that place, and maybe fighting on in Afghanistan, where the bad guys actually were, made more sense.
Obama did pour an additional thirty thousand troops into Afghanistan – his surge, so to speak – but now this war is beginning to look as dumb as the other, if for different reasons. There seems to be no way to win this one, if we can even define what it would mean to win. That’s different from Bush’s Iraq war, which we won, but which gained us little, or less. Saddam Hussein is gone, a good thing, but Iraq is still in chaos and now quite cozy with the nasty folks next door in Iran, and also probably helping Assad in Syria as Assad systematically bombs his own people into what he hopes is submission. That’s what we got for our efforts. The war in Iraq turned out to be pointless. But the one in Afghanistan now seems hopeless – the folks for whom we are fighting more and more frequently turn and shoot our guys dead, and we accidently kill women and children and issue our deeply felt and sincere apologies, again and again – and after eleven years all this really seems only tangentially related to what happened in New York and Washington on that September morning so long ago, which was the point of all this in the first place. We’re doing what? Why?
Given that, all this anti-American violence across the Muslim world, over a stupid and intentionally offensive fourteen minutes of a movie which may not even exist, seems less about the in-your-face video than it is about all the rest. The extended YouTube clip seems more of a pretext for a protest about everything else we’ve done in the Middle East since 1953 or so, when we engineered the return of the Shah in Iran by carefully arranging the overthrow of the guy they had actually elected. We don’t have a good track record in the Middle East, and in the larger Muslim world we’re hardly trusted. And with Benjamin Netanyahu now pretty much actively lobbying Americans to vote for Mitt Romney – because Obama won’t promise to wipe Iran off the map to save Israel – things only look worse for us in the Muslim world. No doubt many there think the Israeli government is pouring hundreds of millions into Crossroads GPS, Karl Rove’s SuperPAC dedicated to flooding the airwaves with ant-Obama attack ads. Hell, maybe the Israeli government is doing just that, as is the Vatican – we’ll never know, thanks to the Citizens United ruling. In any event our foreign policy in the Middle East seems a shambles – which is nothing new.
Obama did go to Cairo and give that speech saying things would be different now – which worked to keep things calm for a year or two. When the failed Green Revolution was happening in Iran he did what the revolutionaries asked – he stayed out of it, so it wouldn’t seem it was all an American plot. That’s the last thing they needed, and when the governments of Libya and Egypt fell we also tried to tread lightly – this was their gig, not ours, which was the only way such things could be seen as legitimate. All this made sense, and in the end did little good. Now what?
This year the Republicans have an answer. As Marc Ambinder notes, there is the neoconservative theory of the problem at hand:
It is worth taking a brief tour through the Museum of Provocative Weakness. That phrase is a favorite of Ambassador John Bolton, who said on August 28 that Romney “doesn’t believe strength is provocative, he believes that American weakness is provocative.” It has been used many times by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. After the decision had been made to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld told ABC News that it didn’t really matter if a war enrages Arab populations in the Middle East. “All I can say is if history has taught anything, it’s that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do.” When Rumsfeld was fired by President Bush three years later, he used his final turn at the podium to say that “it is not only clear that weakness is provocative, but that the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative.”
Mitt Romney has latched onto that:
This phrase is the beating heart of Mitt Romney’s world view. You can see it in his books. You can hear it whenever he condemns President Obama for his “apology tour.” In practice, this means that whenever America has a choice about whether to demonstrate its will to power, it ought to exercise it. Anything else would telegraph weakness, a lack of resolve that tips the balance of power in the world away from the good guys.
This probably also explains why we were so gleefully into torture in the Bush years – and yes, waterboarding and all the rest are torture, recognized as such by international law and once by our law. It’s not enhanced interrogation, and it provides no useful information, as study after study has shown. You just get a lot of screaming from someone who will say anything at all to make the pain stop. But if weakness is provocative, extreme torture is not because it projects sheer brutal strength, and maybe that was the point of it all in the first place, to show we would torture anyone, for no good reason, and many of them would die. You don’t mess with us. Obama had other instincts, which had to do with diplomacy in all its senses. Do only what’s necessary and only what actually works. Work with allies and be clear with adversaries – be careful and calm and respectful, but firm. Don’t get all impulsive and beat your chest, letting everyone know how powerful you think you are – speak softly and carry a big stick, as Teddy Roosevelt once said. No one will see that as weakness. There’s no reason quiet overwhelming competence should provoke endless bloody attacks.
Neither theory worked of course. We tried one and then the other and we still have a mess in the Middle East. And, if so, that means we have a different sort of choice facing us in November, which is the choice of which set of instincts we want in a president – which may be a matter of temperament. We’re really being asked to choose between a guy who is a thoughtful introvert – thinking carefully before speaking and even more carefully before acting – and a guy who is all in favor of jumping in and being forceful in flexing the old muscles and daring anyone to challenge him. Romney is not all that good at that yet, but he’s getting there. Our Egyptian embassy and one of our Libyan consulates were attacked. Our ambassador and three of his staff are now dead. Egyptian and Libyan security fought to try to protect them. Our relations with the Islamic world are shaky, but we must deal with that world – and the man who would be president is talking about who acted disgracefully by somehow projecting weakness, and smirking, because he knows he’s lying about the facts. That was a very extroverted act. Obama hardly responded to it – he just went on doing what had to be done, without stirring the pot further. That’s a very introverted act.
That’s one way to frame the choice here, and people have been looking into this. In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelly Candaele has an item from the Democratic National Convention where he interviews John Heilemann, the co-author of Game Change – the definitive book on the 2008 election – and Candaele offers this exchange:
JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something – not to mention the Presidency – in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.
KC: Obama doesn’t like people?
JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’ve known the guy since 1988. He’s not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He’s not a backslapper and he’s not an arm-twister. He’s a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities. He’s incredibly intelligent, but he’s not a guy who’s ever had a Bill Clinton-like network around him. He’s not the guy up late at night working the speed dial calling mayors, calling governors, calling CEOs.
And Heilemann also says this:
People say about Obama that it’s a mistake that he hasn’t reached out more to Republicans on Capitol Hill. I say that may be a mistake, but he also hasn’t reached out to Democrats on Capitol Hill. If you walk around [the convention] and button-hole any Democratic Senator you find on the street and ask them how many times they have received a call [from the President] to talk about politics, to talk about legislative strategy, I guarantee you won’t find a lot of people who have gotten one phone call in the last two and a half years. And many of them have never been called.
I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know what the root of that is. People have theories about it. But I know in practice he is a guy who likes to operate with a very tight circle around him, trusts very few people easily or entirely. He ran his campaign that way in 2008, he runs his White House that way, and he’s running his campaign that way in 2012.
That is an introvert, and Andrew Sullivan pushes back:
This is the gist of Maureen Dowd’s frustration with the man. But it also helps explain my own visceral affinity for him. I’m an introvert with good communications skills. I took one long look at a political career and realized I simply don’t have the social skill-set for it.
Who does? But there’s Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – worth a read unless you’re out glad-handing potential clients or something – who offers this:
Mr. Heilemann may be right that Mr. Obama is an introvert, but his apparent sense of what the word means is wrong. Introverts like people just as much as extroverts do, and often care deeply about them. They just don’t want to be surrounded by crowds 24/7 and they tend to prefer the company of close friends and colleagues. There’s little evidence that Mr. Obama dislikes people – only that he socializes in a more intimate, less backslapping style than the typical politician.
Considering the fact that Mitt Romney has also been criticized for being too reserved, we might as well get used to the fact that, no matter the outcome of the election, we won’t have an extrovert in the White House for at least another four years. And that gives us an opportunity to address our popular misconceptions about what leadership really involves.
There really is no problem here:
Culturally, we tend to associate leadership with extroversion and attach less importance to judgment, vision and mettle. We prize leaders who are eager talkers over those who have something to say. In 2004, we praised George W. Bush because we wanted to drink a beer with him. Now we criticize President Obama because he won’t drink one with us.
The nation’s premier leadership training grounds, like Harvard Business School and West Point, are particularly good places to explore attitudes about leadership. At Harvard Business School, an institution that one graduate described to me as “the spiritual capital of extroversion,” grades are based half on class participation, and first years do most of their studying in mandatory groups called learning teams. Students are expected to be relentlessly social outside of class, too. “I go out at night like it’s my job,” one student told me.
This may be all nonsense:
Many of this nation’s finest leaders have been extroverts – but plenty have not. Jim Collins, in his study of the best-performing companies of the late 20th century, found that they were all led by chief executives known primarily for their fierce will and dedication – and were often described with words like “reserved” and “understated.”
She thinks there’s no problem here:
Introverted leaders often possess an innate caution that may be more valuable than we realize. President Clinton’s extroversion served him well but may have contributed to conduct that almost derailed his presidency. It’s impossible to imagine the cautious and temperate Mr. Obama mired in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Would it be better if Mr. Obama palled around with more senators, attended more cocktail parties, cut a schmoozier figure? Sure. PR is part of a politician’s job. And as the personality psychologist Brian Little says, we all need to act out of character occasionally, for the sake of work or people we love.
But on the long list of attributes of a successful president – or of any leader – an outgoing persona is low on the list. The charisma of ideas matters more than a leader’s gregarious charms.
Heck, he has Joe Biden there for the back-slapping and gregarious charm stuff. He outsourced the bullshit part of the job, and Kevin Drum thinks introversion is a fine trait in a president:
I get that schmoozing is part of the job, and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn’t pay sufficient attention to them. That’s probably why most of them get along so well with the Wall Street crowd: They’re birds of a feather.
But honestly, I’ve seen very little evidence that schmoozing really helps presidents get more accomplished. All those extroverted politicians will tell you differently, of course, but they’re just talking their book. They like schmoozing – better known to most of us as bullshitting or goofing off – so they spend lots of time making up stories about how important it is. But you should take this for what it is: the special pleading of a bunch of permanent adolescents trying to convince us that drinking and gabbing are essential parts of running the country.
And is adolescent boasting about your super-amazing strength, so you never appear weak, so no one messes with you, also an essential part of running the country? That seems to be the argument. Drum is not impressed:
I’ve read enough about Obama’s personal style to believe that he should probably have a wider range of advisers and should spend a little more time on traditional political sucking up. Generally speaking, though, I’m delighted that we have a president who is fundamentally more interested in actual work than he is in yakking on the phone with whichever senators need to be stroked that day. After all, introverted or not, Obama has somehow gotten a lot more accomplished than either Bush or Clinton ever did.
In fact, I think we should have a National Introverts Day. Unfortunately, none of us will ever do the schmoozing required to get one.
And one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers offers this:
Always remember that our most celebrated president was also our most celebrated introvert: Abraham Lincoln.
Oh, him? Do you value thoughtfulness? If so, consider this:
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum attacked the media and “smart people” for not being on the side of conservatives in a speech to the Values Voter Summit on Saturday.
“We will never have the media on our side, ever, in this country,” Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, told the audience at the Omni Shoreham hotel. “We will never have the elite, smart people on our side.”
Yeah, those elite, smart people hang back and think things through, and Doug Mataconis fires back:
What Santorum said today is emblematic of rhetoric you hear quite frequently from people on the right such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. Generally, they idea seems to be that there’s something about being intelligent, or curious about the world, or interested in something beyond the orthodox interpretations of history and the law that conservatives insist upon. You see it manifest itself in the rejection of even the rather obvious fact that humanity can have an influence on the environment around it and, most irrationally, in the very rejection of everything that biology, anthropology, physics, and cosmology teach us. For many on the right, it’s easier to believe in the stories written in a 6,000 year old book than it is in the evidence of just how amazing the universe around them actually is. They can believe whatever they want, of course, but the fact that they constantly try to force these beliefs on others, most especially through the public school system, makes their disdain for knowledge a matter of public concern.
They do the same thing in foreign policy, also a matter of public concern, and it’s rather new:
It’s quite ironic that there’s an entire branch of conservatism that has come to this, because things were quite different when the modern conservative movement started. Back then, conservatism was exemplified by men like Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley, Jr. and, even well into the 1980s, National Review would publish heavily intellectual arguments and review books that, well, were a heck of a lot more substantial than the latest screed from Mark Levin or Ann Coulter. There is still an intellectual wing of conservatism today, but it’s far smaller than it used to be and, quite often, it finds itself being rejected by the activists for whom people like Santorum, Bachmann, and Palin are heroes.
They have a party of extreme extroverts. Yes, on the other side there are those of us who have social skills, but find small talk… well… small. There are those who are more comfortable with what’s in their head, who listen to others and don’t feel like arguing with them or agreeing with them either. Sometimes it’s best to listen carefully and think about what they’re saying. All issues are more complicated than they seem. Easy answers are almost always foolish answers. Obama seems to think that way, which is called weakness, weakness that will get us all killed – or will save us from getting killed. Choose your side. This is another thing the election is about.