Streetwise Professor

October 9, 2014

Not an Intellectual, and Not a Leader

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 7:24 pm

This Reuters article about Obama’s Syria policy, such as it is, is brutal, but at the same time overly charitable.

The charitable part is about him being “analyst in chief.” Yes, the article makes it clear that this is not intended to be a compliment, and that the administration is a classic case of paralysis by analysis. But I think it’s unduly charitable to credit Obama with any real analytical prowess. I’ve yet to see evidence of it. He is the master of logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks (the straw man, the false choice). He can regurgitate progressive tropes in a stentorian voice. But original thought? Incisive intellect? Those are certainly not on public display. His intellectual gifts are vastly overhyped.

A related criticism is that Obama is too professorial to be president. As Richard Epstein (who truly is an analytical genius with a penetrating intellect) has noted, Obama wasn’t a professor (he was a senior lecturer) who never produced one piece of independent research, and what’s more, he assiduously avoided the intellectual give and take at Chicago. He did not participate in the amazing and unique lunch and seminar culture.

This is offensive to me, actually. As a Chicago alum (three times over) I realize how special that culture is. It borders on the criminal to have the opportunity to be a part of it, and spurn it. No real intellectual would do that. So spare me the he’s-too-cerebral bunk. He’s not a professor. He’s a poser.

Other parts of the piece suggest a man who is rigidly wedded to his preconceptions, and cannot adjust when reality does not conform to them:

The president’s supporters say his approach is based on principle, not bias. He ran on a platform of winding down the Iraq War and made his views crystal-clear on military action in the Middle East. Obama believed that the human and financial costs of large-scale interventions weren’t worth the limited outcomes they produced. He held that U.S. force could not change the internal dynamics of countries in the region.

The problem is that those beliefs  and principles appear to have been immune to contradictory evidence, as revealed by how tightly he clung to them as things spun out of control.

The most damning part of the Reuters piece is not the analyst-in-chief stuff. It relates to his control freakery, inability to delegate,  reliance on a small group of staff, and failure to engage seriously people who might actually know something and who have independent heft:

In some ways, Obama’s closer control and the frequent marginalization of the State and Defense departments continues a trend begun under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

But under Obama, the centralization has gone further. It was the White House, not the Pentagon, that decided to send two additional Special Operations troops to Yemen. The White House, not the State Department, now oversees many details of U.S. embassy security – a reaction to Republican attacks over the lethal 2012 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A decision to extend $10 million in nonlethal aid to Ukraine also required White House vetting and approval.

On weightier issues, major decisions sometimes catch senior Cabinet officers unawares. One former senior U.S. official said Obama’s 2011 decision to abandon difficult troop negotiations with Baghdad and remove the last U.S. soldiers from Iraq surprised the Pentagon and was known only by the president and a small circle of aides.

. . . .

Some aides complained that alternative views on some subjects, such as Syria, had little impact on the thinking of the president and his inner circle. Despite the open debate, meetings involving even Cabinet secretaries were little more than “formal formalities,” with decisions made by Obama and a handful of White House aides [can you say Valerie Jarrett? I knew you could!], one former senior U.S. official said.

Obsession with control, inability and unwillingness to confront conflicting views, and a refusal to delegate are classic management/leadership fails, especially in a vast organization like the USG. A former NSC staffer hits the nail on the head:

“The instinct is to centralize decision-making with the hope of exerting more control,” she said. “But that often limits the U.S. government’s agility and effectiveness at a time when those two traits are most needed.”

The conventional explanation of these tendencies is that Obama is excessively arrogant, as epitomized by this quote:

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”

But I wonder whether the condescension and arrogance are a narcissistic mask for deep insecurity. A truly confident man would wade into the rough-and-tumble Chicago workshop culture with a relish, rather than avoid it. A truly confident man would have no problems surrounding himself with women and men of independent stature, rather than toadies and non-entities totally reliant on him for their position: his Lilliputian second term cabinet speaks volumes (and it’s not as if his first term cabinet was a collection of giants). A confident man would be able to delegate in the belief that subordinates would be willing and able to act on his instructions in accordance to the circumstances that they encounter. Fearful men are obsessed with control.

There are other indications of narcissism, notably the injured and self-pitying response to criticism:

Six years of grinding partisan warfare over foreign policy (and much else) have left Obama increasingly fatalistic about his critics. [Note the attribution of partisanship to others exclusively, and no recognition of his own contribution to partisan rancor.]

While on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard in late August, he was widely criticized for golfing after making a condolence call to the family of murdered American journalist James Foley. Minutes after declaring Foley’s murderer – Islamic State – a “cancer” that had “no place in the 21st century,” Obama teed off with a campaign contributor, an old friend and a former NBA star.

Obama later told aides the criticism was inevitable. No matter what I do, he said, my enemies will attack me.

That is, rather than acknowledging that some criticism might be accurate, and trying to learn from it, he uses the fact that some criticism is partisan (from “enemies”-Nixon much?) to dismiss all of it, so he can rationalize doing just what he wants to do (e.g., playing golf at a time of tragedy).

I guess the intellectual and psychological roots of Obama’s failure as a leader don’t really matter (and if Jimmy Carter slags you for foreign policy fecklessness, you are a failure). What does matter is that the world is in flames, America’s standing is at its lowest ebb in living memory, dictators and authoritarians are on the march, and we have two more years to endure this before there is a possibility of an improvement. For Obama isn’t going to change. Regardless of why he is who he is, he is who he is. And who he is is not constitutionally equipped to lead during times of strife, especially strife that is largely the result of his own failures to lead.




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  1. But I wonder whether the condescension and arrogance are a narcissistic mask for deep insecurity.

    I’ve always thought all the Birther nonsense and idiocy about President Obama being born in Kenya obliterated opportunities to talk about what his upbringing (abandoned by his father and then other father-figures after that, his mother dragging him around to find her fulfillment) did to him as a child and to his development, and consequently what kind of personality he developed. Instead, we got “He’s a Kenyan Moozlim dur dur dur”.

    One of the most salient and prescient criticisms of the President in the run-up to 2008 has been that we was Mr. Vote-Present, and not someone who would make hard decisions. As I’ve said before: Harding. Someone who got into office because of their connections to a powerful state political machine and because they thought they could change the world from the Oval Office, only to discover the world’s pretty complicated.

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 9, 2014 @ 8:51 pm

  2. I think it’s worth noting that the one decision that Obama gets the most credit for, authorizing the raid to get Bin Laden, was one that the intelligence community, relevant advisors etc. were all pushing for. Mark Bowden’s “The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden” covers how the decision was made (and subsequently spun) in detail. Bowden is critical of the administration for taking far too much credit for the action (by making it appear as though there was significant internal opposition and doubt, when there was none), and it is clear that there was a lot of time spent on creating debate (again, where there was none) and exploring unworkable and unrealistic strategies before eventually settling on the approach that the experts had been in favor of all along.

    The major difference between the decision making processes in the cases of Bin Laden and Syria etc. is that the public never knew about the potential Bin Laden operation until it had already succeeded, while the need for leadership in dealing with ISIS is apparent to everyone.

    Comment by JDonn — October 9, 2014 @ 10:55 pm

  3. Decisions small as well as large are made at the White House, often with scant influence from the Pentagon and State Department and their much larger teams of analysts and advisers. Senior Cabinet officials spend long hours in meetings debating tactics, not long-term strategy, the officials said.

    Robert S. Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus, recalled long meetings to debate small issues, such as which Syrian opposition members he could meet with and whether it was okay to give cell phones, media training and management classes to a local Syrian government council controlled by the opposition.

    Despite the open debate, meetings involving even Cabinet secretaries were little more than “formal formalities,” with decisions made by Obama and a handful of White House aides, one former senior U.S. official said.

    So Obama has adopted French corporate management techniques, then. And with the same results.

    Comment by Tim Newman — October 10, 2014 @ 5:21 am

  4. O is a really odd combination of the classic comic’s version of Ozymandias and types from Freud’s “Civilization & Its Discontents”: he has the intellectual depth of the old Phil Donahue show, and the personality of a golf club gladhander when he wants something, along with a sense of entitlement that beggars belief. He reminds me of the old joke about orchestral conductors: all of them are confused as to whether they are a mortal or God, except Herbert von Karajan, who knows he is God.

    Comment by sotos — October 10, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

  5. @JDonn-The very fact that Obama and his acolytes consider the decision to go after Osama to have been such an agonizingly difficult choice is incredibly revealing. If Special Operations Command, etc., were gung ho to go, it should have been an obvious decision. Bush or Reagan certainly wouldn’t have hesitated. Clinton might have been more reluctant, but I can’t imagine him talking around the problem and avoiding choosing for so long. Carter launched Desert One, back when the US military, and special forces in particular, were much less capable and experienced in such operations. Hamlet looks like the model of decisiveness and courage compared to Obama.

    And of course Valerie Jarrett was deeply involved in this.

    Re “the need for leadership in dealing with ISIS [being] apparent to everyone”: I’m not so sure that “everyone” includes Obama. Remember that he talked the decision of whether to mount a raid to save Foley to death. Quite literally in Foley’s case. By the time he decided, the window of opportunity had closed.

    Obama has only acted in the past month because the political pressure became overwhelming, and he is doing the absolute minimum possible.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

  6. @Blackshoe. Excellent points. The main difference between Obama and Harding is that Harding never considered himself the Messiah. He was more interested in poker, bourbon, and booty.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 10, 2014 @ 6:09 pm

  7. SWP:

    Between Harding & Obama, Putin would prefer to serve under Harding. In reality, Obama serves under Putin.

    VP VP

    Comment by Vlad — October 14, 2014 @ 5:08 pm

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