Making Sure Nothing Much Happens

It’s not like you think. It never is. Sure, you watch the crime shows, the police procedurals, and read James Elroy or whatever, but if you have a cop in the family you realize most police work is rather boring. It’s mostly paperwork, interrupted by getting upset people to just slow down and back off, and go about their business. The danger and romance – the sensational lurid crime or the big bust – are rare, as they are supposed to be. If you do the job well nothing much happens.

And Hollywood is the same. In the late nineties it was hanging with that crowd, and one night drinking heavily, at Musso and Frank, with the line producer of the smash weekly television comedy at the time. And what does a line producer do? He watches over the budget, item by item. His world is the world of spreadsheets, worrying about spending too much on catering or set dressing. This wasn’t very glamorous, nor was the Oscar party that year, at the home of a studio vice president. Yeah, that was the Sony-Columbia, the old MGM complex down in Culver City – where they filmed Gone With the Wind and the Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris and so much more. But she was Vice President for Facilities. Someone has to keep track of the condition of the soundstages and warehouses and restrooms. And there are safety inspections and OSHA regulations, and the wiring and plumbing and all the rest. It’s not as if the job is unimportant. But it wasn’t Hollywood, as people think of Hollywood. And you see that in the streets around here, as they’re always filming something or other, with the big trucks and all the cables and diffusion flats and big lights and all the rest – just like this – but it’s mostly crafts people waiting around. Nothing much happens. Gaffers and grips often bring a book to read. It’s not like you think.

And this is Barack Obama’s problem. If you do the job well nothing much happens, and that simply makes people uncomfortable. His predecessor left the nation in shambles – locked in an endless land war in central Asia, with half the world thinking we were mad as hatters, or wholly evil, and the worldwide economy at the edge of total collapse – half of the wealth of the world suddenly gone, with markets frozen solid and banks collapsing, as no one had been paying attention – no one had been watching the store, as they say. It certainly was dramatic. And maybe we got used to that.

But as much as the left thought the nation had elected JFK this time, it seems we elected Eisenhower.

In fact, Ron Brownstein has argued that very thing, that Obama prefers the Eisenhower “hidden hand” way of doing things:

This approach has allowed Obama to achieve many of his domestic and international aims – from passing the health reform legislation that marked its stormy first anniversary this week to encouraging Egypt’s peaceful transfer of power. But, like it did for Eisenhower, this style has exposed Obama to charges of passivity, indecisiveness, and leading from behind. The pattern has left even some of his supporters uncertain whether he is shrewd – or timid.

On most issues, Obama has consciously chosen not to make himself the fulcrum. He has identified broad goals but has generally allowed others to take the public lead, waited until the debate has substantially coalesced, and only then announced a clear, visible stand meant to solidify consensus. He appears to believe he can most often exert maximum leverage toward the end of any process – an implicit rejection of the belief that a president’s greatest asset is his ability to define the choices for the country (and the world).

It’s not dramatic, and everyone knows the choices anyway. That’s what all the folks on the cable news shows and all the radio stations are for. Obama just gets the job done, every damned time. Brownstein explores this in great detail – he too is conflicted about this. He hints that maybe the American people just cannot deal with a president who sort of implies that doing the job well is really not that exciting and full of high drama, that the point is to get things done.

And on Monday, March 28, Obama addressed the nation on what we’re doing, and what we’re not doing, in Libya – we’re doing the right thing, and the necessary thing, but we’re not going all crazy here. And Alex Pareene has a pretty good take on it:

Shepard Smith was very skeptical going in to this speech – he may be the only pundit worth watching on the Libya situation, because his skepticism is honest and not knee-jerk – but he was waiting to be told, “why Libya.” And Barack Obama answered that question, more or less. Whether or not it was convincing is up to the listener.

Yes, Fox News’ Shepard Smith is a good man, but the issues were 1) why we’re bombing Libya, and 2) what the heck Obama was doing before we began bombing Libya, and 3) what we’re doing next. And Obama managed to make this all workmanlike, and not particularly dramatic:

Obama first explained that our military is doing everything it’s supposed to do in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We are not distracted. He went on to defend the time between the Libyan uprising and our strikes. What looked like “dithering,” he wanted us to know, was actually a lot of behind-the-scenes action (asset-freezing!).

The big sell: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre.” Barack Obama did not want the United States to stand idly by while a truly horrific massacre took place. “And tonight,” he said, “I can report that we have stopped Qadaffi’s deadly advance.”

Obama went on to actually list the allies in our “strong and growing coalition” of course, and Pareene found that a little too much George Bush – petulant defensiveness is not a good look for anyone. And Obama said he made the decision to intervene “after consulting the bipartisan leadership of Congress” – but that was the only mention of Congress. That might be cheating a bit. Consulting is a broad term.

But this is the nub of it:

Obama’s job was really to hammer home the point that our actions prevented the deaths of, potentially, thousands of innocents. And he wanted you to know that not only was there precedent, but he actually acted decisively: “When people were being brutalized in Bosnia, in the 1990s, it took the international community over a year to intervene.” They decided to go in and do this in a month. (He didn’t blame a news cycle sped up by 24-hour cable news networks, for once.) (And an obvious counter-argument presented itself: A longer amount of time might’ve given the mission more clarity.)

And there’s this:

As for what’s next, the president said the transfer from the United States to NATO will take place on Wednesday. And following that, we will deny Qaddafi his funds and generally “hasten the day” when he leaves. We want him gone, but our mission is not regime change. It is still our “goal,” though: “While our military mission is narrowly focused on saving lives, we continue to pursue the broader goal of a Libya that belongs not to a dictator, but to her people.”

So Pareene offers a paraphrase:

So, we did this for the very good reasons listed earlier, and I promise we’re done now. NATO will also bring down the cost to our military and “our taxpayers.” We can’t be World Police, but that can’t be argument for “never acting.” “In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a unique scale.” And no American troops will be sent in.

Police work, when done well, is actually rather boring, you see – just like the Hollywood stuff. There’s no need to get upset or all excited or whatever. We did the job.

And then he did compare himself to his predecessor, drawing a distinction between this mission and the invasion of Iraq:

In Libya, the opposition actively wanted us to intervene, the dictator was actively attacking his people, and the international community had all agreed that something should be done. If we’d just gone in with the regime change mission without international support or an existing opposition that welcomed us, the president explained, it would be Iraq all over again, which has lasted a long time, and been very expensive, and which has led to a lot of bloodshed.

Obama pretty much said we’d tried that. It was dumb. It didn’t work. But Pareene is clear about how that will go down:

Conservatives who want him to broaden the war (why not Iran?) were probably unconvinced by his point about intervening only to prevent a directly impending massacre. Liberals and libertarians who dislike the idea of dropping bombs – without Congressional approval, no less – on a nation that poses no threat to us (and without a clear exit strategy) were almost certainly not convinced. But they weren’t really expecting to be.

This was Barack Obama addressing skeptical “regular” Americans, not committed partisans and pundits. He was making this mission more like a ’90s-style intervention than an ideologically motivated lengthy misadventure.

In short, this was a relatively big deal, but not the BIG DEAL everyone expects all the time. It’s not like you think. It never is. And we’ll see if anyone agrees.

But Pareene adds something curious:

The speech was on not at television prime time, but at a time that generally belongs to network affiliates. While I thought at first that that was because the White House didn’t want to make this look like a proper presidential address about a proper war (it wasn’t from the Oval Office and all that), but apparently that was just because ABC didn’t want them preempting Dancing With the Stars. And the networks immediately cut to their regular programming. For some reason on NBC that involved Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush listening to Kid Rock. It was… weird.

Or it was the right decision. Obama was just doing his job. He gave an update. The job is not what you think, or what you’ve been told, over and over, on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN. You wanted the war to end all wars? Why?

But beyond the cable jock-sniffs there were some interesting reactions, like this from Daniel Larison:

During his address to the nation, Obama claimed, “When our interests and values are at stake, we have a responsibility to act.” What he failed to do was to explain how “our interests” were at stake in Libya, perhaps because he knows that there is no argument for the Libyan war based on U.S. interests. The president invoked securing the fortunes of Tunisian and Egyptian democracy, the need to deter dictators from using violence against protesters, and the credibility of the U.N. Security Council, but he did not defend this war in terms of serving American interests. Ruling out regime change as something that would destroy the coalition, Obama has accepted overseeing a stalemate between exceedingly weak rebels and an entrenched regime.

Yep, sometimes the job, when done right, is like that. That may be the best alternative here, actually.

And there’s David Frum:

The most ominous of the warning signs was his comment about Iraq. Why reargue that war now? Answer: to justify cutting short the commitment to Libya. Obama’s problem is that the moment to take that position was before the Libyan intervention. If he truly did not think the outcome in Libya mattered – if he had been willing to live with a Qaddafi victory – then he could have hung back and allowed events to proceed. But having committed American power to the war, he committed America inescapably to the outcome. If that outcome is a divided, war-torn country, President Obama will not escape responsibility because he only used American airpower.

Would have it have been better to pour in two hundred thousand troops and fix everything, and stay there until everything was all fine and dandy? Is Frum arguing all or nothing? That would be dramatic. And it’s impossible. We no longer have the troops – they’re busy elsewhere. And we tried that, twice. What is Frum saying?

And there’s Thomas Ricks:

I was most struck by the last few minutes of the speech, when Obama sought to put the Libyan intervention in the context of the regional Arab uprising. He firmly embraced the forces of change, saying that history is on their side, not on the side of the oppressors. In doing so he deftly evoked two moments in our own history-first, explicitly, the American Revolution, and second, more slyly, abolitionism, with a reference to “the North Star,” which happened to be the name of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper. If you think that was unintentional, read this

That’s cool, and there’s Michael Crowley:

Obama offered little sense of how long it might take to dislodge the tyrant, whether we’re willing to push him harder (for instance, by possibly supplying arms to the Libyan rebels) and how America would respond should Libya collapse into an Iraq-like state of violent anarchy. Of course, Obama himself may not know the answers to those questions – which is what has critics of his Libya policy nervous. But in place of those uncertainties, Obama did offer something like a larger doctrine.

He just didn’t go all crazy with it, and John Dickerson explores that here:

Immediately after President Obama spoke Monday night about the American mission in Libya, NBC aired a tribute to George Herbert Walker Bush. It was fitting, since Obama’s speech had been a kind of tribute, too. Though the sweeping claims for American action at times made Obama sound like the more recent Bush president, the central message was the one associated with his father: prudence.

Yes, were the son of George Herbert Walker Bush a Blake scholar, he would have been fond of quoting William Blake – Prudence is a rich, ugly Old Maid, courted by Incapacity. That is what the son hated about the father. But Blake was mad as a loon of course. And the younger Bush wasn’t exactly a scholar.

But consider this:

The president had a pile of reasons the United States had to get involved: Muammar Qaddafi was about to slaughter the residents of Benghazi; the international community was asking for U.S. assistance, as were the anti-Qaddafi forces within Libya; allowing Qaddafi to crack down would have weakened the pro-freedom movements in other Middle Eastern and North African countries; the authority of the United Nations was in question.

Above all else, though, the president said that American values were at stake. “There will be times … when our safety is not directly threatened but our interests and values are,” Obama said. He talked about “our responsibilities to our fellow human beings,” universal rights and the core principles Americans share with those fighting Qaddafi. He cited America’s unique (and exceptional!) history – “born, as we are, out of a revolution by those who longed to be free.”

You could almost see and hear the Marine band coming on stage. It was stirring stuff, the same mood music John F. Kennedy had sounded when he said: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

But while Obama was aiming for the skies with his rhetoric, he was anxious to show just how earthbound and limited the actual mission was. We won’t go farther than the international coalition will allow. The military mission was limited and largely over. Our values don’t compel the United States to intervene wherever humanity is threatened – in, say, the Ivory Coast, Darfur, Bahrain, Yemen, or Syria.

So we got bold doctrine, and prudence.

Most important, the president was able to declare the mission accomplished and promises kept. “So for those who doubted our capacity to carry out this operation, I want to be clear: the United States of America has done what we said we would do. … I said that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation, and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners. Tonight, we are fulfilling that pledge.”

Obama also made the case for a different kind of leadership. “American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves,” he said. “Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well.”

One thinks of the first Bush and Kuwait. Everyone joined in to toss Saddam Hussein out of there, way back when. And we did what we should, and what we said we would do, and no more. That wouldn’t be prudent. Yes, Obama is no George Bush – he’s George Herbert Walker Bush, or the son that should have been. It really is troubling that this notion makes so much sense. Imagine the scene where George Herbert Walker Bush confronts his son, George Walker Bush, and in despair and frustration blurts out those cruel words – Why couldn’t you have been more like Barack Obama! You wouldn’t want to be there.

But that’s not to the point. We just have to get used to a new and uncomfortable notion. Sometimes if you do the job well nothing much happens. That’s so flat and disappointing, and almost always true. Damn.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Making Sure Nothing Much Happens

  1. Richard T says:

    What an excellent posting. You highlight the confusion between action and activity that is at the heart of much – maybe most of the reporting of events. The media seem incapable of making the distinction and, further, in even showing some grasp of the concept of masterly inactivity – a gift which the President has in abundance. The other media idiocy is the obsession with absolute consistency in spotting gaffes and u turns – if a politician says something that differs slightly from remarks made before (often in a different context), the media howls derision and cries stinking fish (I’m not sure whether this latter is a genune australianism or an invention of Barry Humphreys). The problems is I’d guess an inability to appreciate nuance, much less convey it to their readers, listeners and viewers.

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