Friday, February 18, 2011

Will the real President Obama please stand up?

I was amused to read two rather contradictory analyses of Obama’s acumen on the same day. According to Lexington Green at Chicago Boyz (via TigerHawk):

Obama has sent a budget to Congress. Obama’s budget makes no effort whatsoever to cut spending.

Obama is not “failing to lead” as some people are claiming. That is all wrong.

All suggestions to that effect are all wrong. Obama knows exactly what he is doing.

Obama is setting up a confrontation and he plans to win. [snip]

It is that serious. Obama’s brazen, no-cuts budget proposal is not a sign of weakness.

It is a bold chess move that demands a strong response.

Here we have the brilliant Obama, the Obama who is always three moves ahead of his opponents, the Obama who is always thinking, always has a plan, always knows what he’s doing.

According to Niall Ferguson at Newsweek, writing about Obama’s handling of the revolutionary wave in Egypt:

The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried.[snip]

“This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,” an anonymous American official told The New York Times last week. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”

I can think of no more damning indictment of the administration’s strategic thinking than this: it never once considered a scenario in which Mubarak faced a popular revolt. Yet the very essence of rigorous strategic thinking is to devise such a scenario and to think through the best responses to them, preferably two or three moves ahead of actual or potential adversaries.

This is quite a different Obama: not merely clueless but unaware clues even existed; not merely not three steps ahead but three steps behind; not merely not thinking but unaware there was anything to think about.

Is it possible that Obama is Lexington Green’s Grandmaster in domestic politics and Ferguson’s incompetent in foreign affairs? Sure. But I doubt it. As I’ve made clear, I don’t think Obama has a coherent world view of any kind:

Obama cannot be politically ideological because he lacks an integrated world view. His beliefs are simply items on lists, plucked out of the air around him and jotted down hastily. Obama has not thought about how these ideas tie together, how they might conflict with each other, what they say about how the world as a whole works or can work. He has no overarching ideology; he simply has lists.

So Ferguson’s analysis of Obama’s handling of Egypt rings true to me: he is simply working through items on his list, trying one after the other to see what kind of reaction he gets.

By contrast, Lexington Green’s analysis of Obama’s handling of the budget does not ring true to me. I don’t believe Obama has any grand scheme; he simply doesn’t have an item on his list that says, “Sometimes you have to reduce spending” and is thus literally unable to present a budget that makes any effort to cut spending.

Obama is not a brilliant strategist; he’s a liberal being mugged by reality.



This comment from Ferguson made me laugh:

The president himself is not wholly to blame. Although cosmopolitan by both birth and upbringing, Obama was an unusually parochial politician prior to his election, judging by his scant public pronouncements on foreign-policy issues.

Yet no president can be expected to be omniscient. That is what advisers are for. The real responsibility for the current strategic vacuum lies not with Obama himself, but with the National Security Council ...

I laugh because I remember Candidate Obama’s response to questions about what he wanted in a Vice-President:

Last night at a fundraiser in San Francisco, Barack Obama took a question on what he's looking for in a running mate. "I would like somebody who knows about a bunch of stuff that I'm not as expert on," he said, and then he was off and running. "I think a lot of people assume that might be some sort of military thing to make me look more Commander-in-Chief-like. Ironically, this is an area--foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain."

And I laugh at the idea that a President who does not know what he does not know is somehow “not wholly to blame” when his lack of knowledge results in poor policy by his Administration. I would argue that if Obama was getting poor advice from his advisers that is absolutely his responsibility. Who would Ferguson hold responsible for picking the advisers, if not Obama himself?