Something always goes wrong. Plans don’t work out. What you said was a brilliant idea turns out to be obvious nonsense. You miscalculated. You made a mistake, a fundamental mistake, a mistake from which there is no recovery. This is bad enough in a marriage, but it’s deadly for a politician and in both cases there seem to be two choices. One is to brazen it out – there really was no mistake, or if there was one, everyone at the time thought exactly what you thought, so everyone made the same honest mistake. Say you regret nothing. That’s the manly and heroic thing to do. That may end your marriage, but politicians know that voters will admire you for sticking to your guns. No one wants a leader who has self-doubts, who sits around and wonders if he (or she) did the right thing. Voters want certainty, if not a bit of swagger. In 2004, John Kerry was a flip-flopper, a guy who clearly thought too much. George Bush never wavered. He was never uncertain about anything, even if he didn’t know much about anything. He was a rock.
He was also dumb as a rock. John Kerry is now our secretary of state, actually convincing the major Sunni nations of the Middle East to help us take down the Sunni madmen of ISIS over there, even if that might help that Shiite fellow Assad, in Syria, and the Shiite guys in Iran, who want their nukes. One thing at a time – it’s tricky – but we had to make adjustments after we removed Saddam Hussein in Iraq and unleashed a regional religious civil war over there. We were supposed to unleash glorious secular democracy. Oops. John Kerry is trying to contain the damage we caused by that miscalculation, and George Bush is back in Texas painting pretty pictures of puppies. The two always thought differently. The other choice, when something goes terribly wrong, is to forget trying to brazen it out. People know better. They won’t admire you for your refusal to see the obvious, so you go the other way. You say okay, it seems THAT was a mistake. Let’s fix it. Let’s not dwell on who made the mistake and why, but let’s fix it.
That’s not manly and heroic – perhaps it’s even a bit feminine – but there are also a considerable number of voters who, when they see a man of unwavering conviction, see a dangerous fool. In 2008 they saw John McCain, and someone even more certain that she knew what she knew that she knew, Sarah Palin. Barack Obama won easily. He sometimes changes his mind. He doesn’t change his values – the typical center-left stuff about using the government to actually help its own citizens – but he changes his mind when the facts on the ground have changed. The surge in support for gay marriage took him by surprise. He “evolved” on that issue. He got the point. This really was an issue of equal protection under the law, and common decency. Obama could have quoted John Maynard Keynes – “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Obama could have quoted John Maynard Keynes, but that would only have caused more trouble. The Republican Party is the party of unwavering conviction, with its Values Voters and that Tea Party crowd who will never compromise on anything, all folks who pride themselves on never changing their mind, ever. America never makes mistakes. Obama is always apologizing for America – one of the major themes of the 2012 Romney campaign. This must stop, and so on and so forth. They have their voters who think that way, about half the country – or maybe less, but they all come out to vote in each and every election. The other half of the country who sees things the other way – let’s fix things. Those who say there’s nothing to fix, and there never was anything to fix, puzzle them. Patriotism is one thing, but what planet do they live on?
There’s no need for those planets to collide, but they did, awkwardly, on April 13, 2004:
President Bush flounders in answering a question about what his “biggest mistake” after 9/11 might have been. During a White House press conference, Time reporter John Dickerson asks Bush: “In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?” Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, is horrified by what he later calls Bush’s “tortured response to a straightforward question.” Bush attempts to buy a moment with a quip – “I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it” – but continues to fumble, saying: “John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just – I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.”
After what McClellan will recall as “an agonizingly long pause… a terrible silence [that] hung embarrassingly in the air,” Bush continues: “I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein. See, I happen to believe that we’ll find out the truth on the weapons. That’s why we’ve sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth, exactly where they are. They could still be there…”
Yes, Bush decided to brazen it out, but the interesting thing is that he never saw that question coming. It never occurred to him that he could make a mistake, but now someone had suggested that was possible, and that sounded reasonable, so he came up with this:
“I hope I – I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t – you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”
McClellan will write that he remains “stone-faced and motionless” as Bush manages to flounder through the question without actually admitting any mistakes.
McClellan knew they were in trouble and he knew why:
McClellan will later reflect: “There were many other times, in private and in public, when the president defended the most fateful decision of his administration. But few will be remembered as vividly as the one he made that night. It became symbolic of a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistake – too stubborn to change and grow.” McClellan believes Bush is afraid to admit a mistake for “fear of appearing weak,” and will write: “A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure, to trust people’s ability to forgive those who seek redemption for mistakes and show a readiness for change.”
McClellan wrote that stuff and then was ripped to shreds by Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly and all the rest – and defended himself on MSNBC and publicly endorsed Obama in 2008 on CNN. He endorsed the guy who trusted people’s ability to forgive those who see that they’ve made a mistake and is more than ready to fix it. That’s how you end up doing the right thing, eventually, or even sooner. Yes, unlike Bush, Obama was not a rock. Who needs a rock?
Now we’ll have to answer that question, because of this:
The United States underestimated the Islamic State’s rise in Iraq and Syria, President Obama said in an interview broadcast Sunday night in which he also acknowledged the Iraqi army’s inability to successfully tackle the threat.
On CBS’s “60 Minutes,” correspondent Steve Kroft referred to comments by James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, in which he said, “We overestimated the ability and the will of our allies, the Iraqi army, to fight.”
“That’s true. That’s absolutely true,” Obama said. “Jim Clapper has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.”
Obama’s remarks were his frankest yet in acknowledging that the rise of the Islamic State took the United States by surprise.
We miscalculated. Can that ever be forgiven? Paul Waldman wonders about that:
This is all about a couple of sentences in the interview, in which the President said something that few seriously dispute. You can argue that it happened because ISIS grew rapidly, which would have been hard to predict, or you can argue that the Iraqi Army’s instantaneous collapse in places like Mosul was an unlikely outcome, but at this point no one is going to say that we had perfect information and understood exactly what ISIS’s capability would become.
Waldman wonders why this was such big news. If Obama had said we knew about ISIS all along, that we knew about them years ago, everyone on the right would scream that he was lying, and he would be lying – the man knows nothing. On the other hand, if Obama wasn’t lying and had known about ISIS all along, why the hell didn’t he do something about those folks years ago? The man is incompetent. But then, if Obama is being truthful here, that he and the intelligence community actually miscalculated, that’s an even bigger deal. He should have known about ISIS all along. The man is in way over his head. They’ve got him now.
Waldman puts that this way, emphasizing the role of the press in all this:
If no one would really dispute what Obama admitted, why is it such big news? Did we expect him to say, “No, in fact we understood ISIS perfectly at every stage and predicted exactly what they would do, and nobody misjudged anything”? I’m old enough to remember when George W. Bush got a lot of negative media attention for his unwillingness to admit that he had ever made a mistake, even as the Iraq War spiraled downward and things weren’t looking too rosy at home either. The common thread uniting that period and this one is that so many in the press are focusing on the public relations aspect of governing, essentially punishing the president for not being more careful with his words.
A big part of the reason is that this is just what political reporters do. Whenever you have a big story like a war, it will be reported by two sets of journalists. The first is those with expertise in the subject – in this case, foreign affairs and national security reporters. The second is the political reporters. The latter have always exhibited a strange contradiction, in which they can’t stand politicians who are relentlessly “on message,” but also swiftly punish any politician who strays off message with endless “gaffe” coverage.
Now it’s Obama’s turn, for better or worse, and Waldman fears the worst:
The lesson he may take from it is that he shouldn’t admit mistakes (so long as that reluctance stops short of being almost pathological, as Bush’s was). But that’s exactly what we want presidents to do, not simply because it means being honest, but also because it helps everyone – both the public and those in government – to understand where we’ve fallen short and where we might fall short again. In this case, the limitations of our intelligence and particularly our ability to predict future events ought to be in the forefront of everyone’s mind as we make decisions. As we learned the last time we fought a war in Iraq, there are few things more dangerous than leaders who are sure they understand everything about a situation and know exactly what’s going to happen.
Imagine Sarah Palin as president. That’s what Waldman is talking about, and in another item he asks us to imagine what’s going to happen the next time there’s any kind of Islam-inspired terror attack on American soil:
The news media would amp up the fear to levels we haven’t seen in the last decade, encouraging everyone to look for sleeper cells lurking down at the Piggly Wiggly. Republicans would of course unite behind President Obama in our time of mourning – kidding! They’d go on TV to denounce him for being so weak that the evildoers struck us in our very heart, and proclaim not only that the blood of the victims is on the hands of every Democrat, but that more attacks are coming and we’re more vulnerable than we’ve ever been. Dick Cheney would emerge snarling from his subterranean lair to warn us that this is only the beginning and we really need to start bombing at least five or six more countries. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already said about ISIL that “this president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home,” might just tear off his shirt and scream, “We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!” right on Fox News Sunday.
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum draws some conclusions:
Democrats and Republicans are both good at some things and bad at others. One of the things that Republicans are good at is making – and repeating over and over and over – firm predictions about the outcomes of their policy preferences. If you fail to wage eternal war in the Middle East, there will be a terrorist attack in the United States. If you lower taxes, the economy will improve. Etc.
These are easy things to understand for voters. And guess what? Eventually there will be a terrorist attack. Eventually the economy will improve. So when those things happen, Republicans have a nice, simple story already planted in the public mind that allows them to take credit or place blame for it.
Democrats are not so good at this.
Obama was honest about ISIS but honesty isn’t always the best political policy:
Most government policies really do have only a modest effect on economic growth. Likewise, most government policies have only a modest effect on the chances of someone eventually pulling off a terrorist attack. But honest or not, it means voters don’t associate Democrats with much of anything. They don’t give them credit for improving the economy, for example, or for preventing terrorist attacks. And honest or not, it’s political malpractice.
Perhaps so, but then Waldman did point to reality:
Other than cowering in fear, what more could we possibly do to forestall terrorism? For years we’ve been taking off our shoes in airports, going through metal detectors in more and more buildings, and letting the NSA read our emails and track our phone calls. The U.S. government created a national security and surveillance apparatus with nearly a million federal employees and outside contractors holding top-secret security clearances, a colossus of listeners and watchers built on the foundation of our fear.
What really protects us, though, is that so few Americans have any desire to commit terrorist acts. Muslim-Americans in particular are more assimilated and loyal to their home than their counterparts in other western countries (and they’ve withstood a stunning level of surveillance and even harassment from law enforcement agencies over the last 13 years with an admirable equanimity and restraint). Those overseas who might like to strike at America, meanwhile, have apparently found getting a tourist visa, coming to the U.S., and buying some of our copious weapons of destruction just too challenging a task to carry out. It’s a tribute to their limited talents and imagination that they keep trying to blow up airplanes, as though that’s the only thing they can think of.
We seem to be dealing with killer clowns, but in that same Sunday interview, Obama saw an alternative to sending in twenty divisions and killing them all:
Well, I think there’s going to be a generational challenge. I don’t think that this is something that’s going to happen overnight. They have now created an environment in which young men are more concerned whether they’re Shiite or Sunni, rather than whether they are getting a good education or whether they are able to, you know, have a good job. Many of them are poor. Many of them are illiterate and are therefore more subject to these kinds of ideological appeals. And, you know, the beginning of the solution for the entire Middle East is going to be a transformation in how these countries teach their youth. What our military operations can do is to just check and roll back these networks as they appear and make sure that the time and space is provided for a new way of doing things to begin to take root. But it’s going to take some time…
Military action against ISIS will buy us some of that time, but it’s no answer to the underlying problem:
With the allies, with their ground troops, and if we do our job right and the Iraqis fight, then over time our role can slow down and taper off. And their role, reasserts itself. But all that depends, Steve. And nobody’s clearer than I am about this – that the Iraqis have to be willing to fight. And they have to be willing to fight in a nonsectarian way – Shiite, Sunni and Kurd alongside each other against this cancer in their midst.
We’re working on that and it isn’t easy – and Americans might not have the patience for that. Go in, wipe them out, and come home – just like before. The problem would be solved once and for all, just like before. No, wait…
Andrew Sullivan sees the same problem:
Well, if anything can calm me down, it’s this no-drama president carefully explaining what his strategy is. It’s not about transforming the Middle East, or unseating Assad, or directly intervening to try and achieve in the future what we couldn’t achieve in the past. It appears to be about minimally containing the threat of Jihadist networks so as to create some space for “a new way of doing things to begin to take root”…
But the same worries persist. What if it becomes impossible to roll back a network like ISIS? What if air bombing campaigns – with civilian casualties – actually galvanizes ISIS and empowers it with a new global identity with which to draw recruits? What if the broken Iraqi state can never be put back together as a multi-sectarian democracy? What if a “new way of doing things” is actually decades in the future? Are we really going to be bombing for decades? And in how many countries does that formula apply?
This is a gamble:
I can see what the president would like to happen. But even he implies it won’t happen for a long, long time – which means we will be bombing for exactly that long time. And there are unintended consequences to all such wars which he doesn’t even seem to contemplate. Those are my worries – an indefinite military commitment, with no way to achieve the underlying changes that would end such a commitment, with the real possibility of blowback.
That’s all true, but at least for the next two years we will have a president who is more than willing to admit mistakes, and willing to make adjustments, willing to learn and grow, as Scott McClellan put it. Half the country will hate that about him, and half the country will love that, and the facts on the ground might change – they might turn out to be as Sullivan fears. What then? “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
Can we live with that? It won’t ever happen again.