Promising the Impossible

It can’t be all that hard to be a rich and successful political consultant. Strip away the details and it all comes down to one thing you have to tell your client over and over again – strong but wrong beats careful but right every time. People are always dissatisfied with how things are going – that’s human nature – and these days everyone is angry. They don’t want to hear that getting the economy humming again, or dealing with other countries with different cultures and odd economic systems and priorities than ours, is complicated and will take time and thought and lots of careful planning, and also might not work out as planned, or might only work out in eight or ten years. They don’t want to hear that bailing out the banks, and not homeowners underwater and losing it all, had to be done immediately, or everything would have collapsed. It should have been both. Everyone should have been saved – they never did buy that “triage” argument that you save what can be saved, or the argument that you fix the one critical problem first, the one that must be solved or it’s all over, and then move to individual problems when things have stabilized. That’s not fair!

No, it’s not fair. It’s only necessary, because all national and international issues are complex, and even more complex when examined closely, and the idea that there are easy answers to complex problems leads to disaster. George Bush’s easy answer to the threat of terrorism – remove Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq until it’s a pro-western secular democracy that recognizes Israel and is prosperous and our peaceful Muslim ally and a shining example to all other nations in the Middle East – ignored a lot of complexity. As did accelerating the deregulation of the financial services industry – because they’d surely do nothing foolish and pull down their own house on their heads, the whole house, just to make a few temporary bucks on the side. Regulations can be burdensome, and they can slow growth a bit here and there, but it’s more complicated than that. Regulations can also spur growth, assuring fairness in all transactions and opening up the markets to masses of potential investors who had been wary, and even environmental regulations can spur growth – in the solar and wind-power industry, but not in coal and peat-bogs, for example. Net growth would be certain, but it would display a complicated pattern of growth, with winners and losers, even if the air and water would be cleaner. How do you explain to voters that not everyone wins all the time, but that eventually everyone wins? They’ll just parrot back the words of Sarah Palin and Rick Perry and that Bachmann woman, and half the Republican Party – Abolish the EPA!

That’s the quick and easy answer to this complex problem also tied to climate change issues. It’s simple. Be bold. Abolish the job-killing Environmental Protection Agency and everything will be just fine, and fire that Shinseki fellow and the VA thing will be fixed immediately, and while you’re at it, bomb Iran – and drill, baby, drill too, and roll the tanks into the Ukraine and send Putin packing. Be bold, and be strong. That has been the Republican line ever since Ronald Reagan strolled into the White House long ago, saying it was simple – cut taxes and cut spending and the economy will really take off, and even without much tax revenue, the government will keep everything running just fine and also triple the military budget, and deficits and the debt will just go away. That didn’t work out. Things are always more complicated than that, but it sounded good and the Republicans have done well enough over the years since, always offering the obviously simple answer to complex problems. Yes, they couldn’t win the White House the last two times, but they won back the House and will probably win back the Senate this year. Even after the Iraq debacle and the collapse of the economy, that “strong but wrong” thing seems to work well enough. If voters are angry enough they get a pass on the “wrong” part of that, so they keep voters angry. It’s a plan. Republican political consultants have it easy. Promise the impossible. No one will notice. Or if they do, no one will care.

These folks just haven’t figured out Obama yet. Obama never quotes H. L. Mencken – Mencken’s nasty sarcasm is toxic – but you can almost hear Obama uttering Menken’s famous words. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

That sums up what Obama has been saying since he first ran for office, but being that blunt would be going too far. Mockery should be used sparingly, and gently, and perhaps lovingly, if at all. Obama’s political success comes from finding other ways to say the same sort of thing, that being strong but wrong means that, well, you’re wrong. He hammers home that message without using a sledgehammer, as he did in his West Point speech:

President Obama on Wednesday laid out his vision for a comprehensive post-9/11 foreign policy after more than a decade of war overseas, arguing for a new form of American leadership that strikes a balance between interventionism and avoiding “foreign entanglements.”

Speaking in front of 1,000 cadets here at the U.S. Military Academy’s commencement ceremony, Obama articulated an approach that he said would employ targeted force in a responsible fashion, including a new initiative aimed at responding to terrorist threats. He sought to blunt growing criticism from political rivals who have called his administration feckless in its response to global crises in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.

He wasn’t feckless. He was careful but right, which sure beats being strong but wrong. He’s been saying that for years, and as a political strategy, that sets a trap for his opponents. They can’t help themselves. They’ll say they’re strong, and then they’ll have to explain why they’re not wrong, which they never had to do before. Strong used to be enough. Take that away and trouble follows:

Former Vice President Dick Cheney blasted President Obama as the weakest president of his lifetime on Wednesday, following the president’s speech defending his foreign policy approach at the U.S. Military Academy commencement ceremony.

“He is a very, very weak president,” Cheney said in an interview with Fox News. “Maybe the weakest – certainly in my lifetime.”

Cheney went on to say that during a recent trip to the Middle East, allies he had “dealt with all the way back to Desert Storm” expressed alarm at the president’s handling of foreign policy.

“They all are absolutely convinced that the American capacity to lead and influence in that part of the world has been dramatically reduced by this president,” Cheney said. “We’ve got a problem with weakness, and it’s centered right in the White House.”

Dick Cheney has always been right before, hasn’t he? That was a given. No one questioned him, or only fools and dupes and goofballs questioned him – those who understood nothing and would never understand anything. It was always “because I said so” with him. What did anyone else really know? Questions were inherently stupid. They exasperated him. He barely tolerated them, even when he was in a good mood.

That worked fine for eight years, but now Obama is doing a Menken on him:

In his speech, Obama said that those who “suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away, are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”

In an implicit rebuke of the foreign policy practiced in the Bush administration, Obama said he would betray his duty to the troops if he dispatched them every time somewhere in the world “needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

“Some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences, without building international support and legitimacy for our action or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required,” Obama added. “Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”

In short, yes, things are nasty out there, and they’re damned complicated too. Sometimes there’s no easy answer to a given problem. Sometimes there’s no answer at all. There never will be. Any honest person knows that, and also probably senses that being strong, even if you’re wrong, does no more than make things worse. Where did “never displaying weakness” get us in the Bush-Cheney years?

Martin Longman has a few things to say about that:

It’s an enduring stain on the reputation and standing of our country that nothing that Dick Cheney did as vice-president has been deemed a crime worthy of prosecution. As Charles Pierce pointed out yesterday, the war in Afghanistan alone has cost “2232 Americans killed, 20,000 local civilians killed, $10.1 million dollars an hour.” To have Dick Cheney free to lecture the country about the current president’s weakness is an abomination. The man has made the words “torture” and “America” synonymous, which is an enduring shame that cannot be blotted out. Dick Cheney is responsible for creating an explicit, operational guide to torture that manifested itself at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, as well as in our secret black site prisons in places like Thailand and Poland.

No one in the Bush administration was a more brazen liar about Saddam Hussein’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks than Dick Cheney. And no one in their right mind thinks that the decision to invade Iraq made America a stronger or more respected nation.

Even though Cheney no longer serves in our government, he should be impeached to make sure he cannot “hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States.”

It’s the least we should do to repair our pride.

Other than that, he’s a fine fellow, but Max Fisher does see a change happening now:

The case where Obama made his argument for dovishness most tellingly was, interestingly, on terrorism – the foreign policy issue where he has been consistently the most hawkish. No, Obama did not announce he was grounding the drones, but he made a telling case for continuing even this sole hawkish element of his foreign policy in a way that more aligned with dovish principles. …

In other words, the US will continue its global fight against terrorism – the one bullets-and-bombs fight that Obama said necessitated American involvement – but will do it by shifting more to relying on regional governments that share America’s concerns about terrorism. The upside is that this means a lower US military commitment, the downside is that it will continue America’s long and ugly history of working with (and thus helping to prop up) despotic regimes.

This then was one of the most dovish speeches made by a major politician in decades, although Andrew Sullivan begs to differ:

What the fuck is “dovish” about that? It’s a judgment about how best to defeat Islamist terror, not an argument that we shouldn’t. This entire hawk-dove framework, after the last two decades, is asinine.

Perhaps so, but David Corn argues here that this means there is no real Obama Doctrine:

For years, Obama has been trying to form and sell a balanced approach that justifies certain military interventions and limits others – while redefining national security interests to include climate change and other matters. That’s a tough task. The world is not a balanced place. It’s likely that Obama’s handling of foreign policy will continue to be judged on a case-by-case basis and less on the establishment of an integrated doctrine. Given the global challenges of this era, a grand plan may not be realistic.

Any big fancy doctrine may be useless now, even if it would be cool to have one, and Sullivan adds this:

I stand by my view that Obama is an old-school conservative in foreign policy (with some unfortunate liberal impulses). His obvious predecessors in style and substance are Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush.

What? Democrats weep at that thought, but Time’s Joe Klein points out just how conservatively Obama is acting:

The President made no threats or promises that he couldn’t carry out, which was a relief. He refused to cave to his feckless domestic opponents – and he paid no commitment other than lip service to the human rights activists who represent a significant strain on his foreign policy staff. He offered no bright line “Obama Doctrine,” which is probably a very good thing. The last President who stood at West Point and offered a Foreign Policy Master Plan was George W. Bush, who made the case for pre-emptive war in 2002. We know where that led. The only appropriate doctrine in a world where the American military – and military spending – is peerless has to be subtle and humble: We’ll take each case as it comes. We’ll lead coalitions to help solve the problems of the world, but we also reserve the right to defend ourselves unilaterally against direct security threats. We will be prudent in word and deed. We won’t bluster about our “indispensability” but will prove it through our actions.

Still, Jeffery Goldberg hears what Obama is saying and sees something missing here:

Foreign policy, for him, is a management challenge: containing threats, quieting unhappy allies, limiting damage. There is no particular vision associated with his detached, cold-eyed approach to foreign affairs. He recently described his policy this way: “You hit singles; you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

This is an accurate rendering of presidential reality, and yet it is strikingly unambitious, especially from a politician who initially promised so much. Obama is not the analyst in chief. He sometimes seems hesitant to set lofty goals – stopping the slaughter in Syria, rolling back the advance of autocracy – because he’s afraid that the words would commit him to action. This is understandable, given the rhetorical and actual overreach seen during George W. Bush’s first term. And yet setting impossible goals, shining-city-on-a-hill goals, speaks to the noblest part of the American experience. No, this does not mean the deployment of U.S. forces to fix problems that don’t need a military fix. It means looking for ways to advance the cause of freedom, which is the traditional role of the U.S. in the world.

Granted, Obama seems hesitant to set lofty goals, but that may not be some sort of owlish academic fastidiousness, or laziness, or lack of vision. That may be perfect twenty-twenty vision, of what is actually possible – getting the right things done without screwing everything up. What do you want – promises of things that are impossible – lies? Sure, promises of things that are impossible are what folks seem to want, and what wins elections, and also what lead us into endless wars that accomplish nothing, expect to fill the coffins and overload the VA system.

Sullivan adds this:

My own view is that too aggressive an attempt to “advance freedom” would also misunderstand what we’ve learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the entire neocon project. Less is sometimes more. Imposition of “freedom” is not the same as a culture’s and a society’s indigenous maturation into modern secularism. That can be coaxed, encouraged, supported – look at the Burma policy – but a light touch is often the best option.

Kevin Drum is with Sullivan and concentrates on how Obama pushed back on the idea that the military can fix everything:

It’s nice to hear Obama say this so directly. Oh, the usual suspects will howl, but no one who has paid even the slightest attention to the history of the past 50 or 60 years can really question this. Our world isn’t yet beyond the need for war, but for war to be an effective instrument of policy it needs to be used judiciously. It needs to be used when core interests are at stake and, equally importantly, it needs to be used only when it’s likely to succeed on its own terms. If we don’t know how to win, or if we have unrealistic ideas of what it even means to win – both of which were the case in Afghanistan and Iraq – then we shouldn’t fight. This isn’t a matter of deep foreign policy thinking, it’s just common sense. Like it or not, there are lots of problems in the world that US military force can’t solve.

PM Carpenter sums it up when he calls the speech “magnificently sane” – and of course that leaves Obama’s critics, who have to oppose him, only one option, to be shabbily insane. At least they’ve had lots of practice at that. For years they had been told that strong but wrong works every time, and in their districts that still works pretty well, where being “wrong” doesn’t matter, or it’s a badge of honor, if you fought hard, for something or other.

Marc Ambinder, however, sees that Obama prefers the real world:

Obama never uses crises in the way that others have. The Arab Spring was a managerial problem from day one. Critics still bash him for failing to side with the true democrats, but really, even today, who the heck are the true democrats? Who stands for American values? Whose version of freedom is closer to ours? What Obama understands, and perhaps understands to a degree that limits his willingness to say otherwise, is that the American version of freedom cannot be exported under current conditions. Maybe in the future, things will change. But now, they cannot.

No one wants to hear that, but then no one wants to hear that if they get all the taxes cut they want, the country will slowly fall apart around them, as roads and bridges crumble, schools close, there are no police and firemen, and the lights go out. No one wanted to hear that getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and spending eight years over there trying to put the place back together again, would get us a Shiite dictator, aligning the place with Syria and Iran, with the same old civil war, with the Sunnis on the outs this time around. For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, even if it’s wrong – at least it’s an answer. But so is “forty-two” and “the butler with the candlestick in the library” and “snow tires.” There are a lot of clear and simple answers. Being strong is one of those easy answers too. Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it nicely – “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

That’s the point here, beyond the newly-defined policy positions in this speech. Forget the speech. We have a political system that has refined and intensified the process of systematically promising the impossible, because as any rich and successful political consultant will tell you, that always works. But no one told Obama. That’s why there’s all the fuss.

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 Promising the Impossible

  1. Rick says:

    I wanted to do a long comment about Dick Cheney, especially his role in launching the hands-down stupidest war in American history, but this Martin Longman fellow got there first, and did it better than I could ever do.

    But I do love the fact that Cheney said this to Fox News:

    “Cheney went on to say that during a recent trip to the Middle East, allies he had ‘dealt with all the way back to Desert Storm’ expressed alarm at the president’s handling of foreign policy. ‘They all are absolutely convinced that the American capacity to lead and influence in that part of the world has been dramatically reduced by this president,’ Cheney said.”

    I’m sorry, but who did he talk to again? One can only imagine that the opinions of anyone willing to sit around and commiserate with Dick Cheney — and especially those he dealt with in the Middle East whose own cluelessness about the real world may have contributed to our disastrous involvement in Iraq — are about as worthless as Cheney’s own. But he, of course, doesn’t see that.

    Cheney should realize that his attacking Obama is like the yippy dog that once bit the mailman and is now attacking his owner, the only person in the world standing between him continuing to live a life of luxury and being put down. Cheney should know that it’s still not too late for Obama, if asked, to agree to pack him off to the World Court to answer for war crimes. But instead of hiding in a spider hole somewhere, like Saddam Hussein, which is what he ought to be doing, Cheney’s out there, taunting his foes.

    Should we admire his bravery, or should this just remind us all that there’s a fuzzy line between courage and outright arrogant stupidity?


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