Sunday, April 29, 2012

The trap of either/or thinking

When I wrote my previous post about Obama campaigning on going after al Qaeda, I hadn't read Peter Bergen's article from yesterday titled Warrior in Chief. But he makes some of the same arguments I did.
None of this should have surprised anyone who had paid close attention to what Mr. Obama said about the use of force during his presidential campaign. In an August 2007 speech on national security, he put the nation — and the world — on alert: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he said, referring to Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan. He added, “I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.”
While Bergen seems to applaud President Obama's approach, he makes some of the same mistakes the liberal critics tend to employ by equating the President's approach to that of his predecessor George Bush. In the end though, he provides us with a clue about why that tends to happen so often.
Still, the American public and chattering classes continue to regard the president as a thinker, not an actor; a negotiator, not a fighter.

What accounts for the strange, persistent cognitive dissonance about this president and his relation to military force?...Whatever the causes, the president has embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink, yet many continue to see him as the negotiator in chief rather than the warrior in chief that he actually is.
It comes down to a predilection for either/or thinking. Is President Obama a thinker OR and actor; is he a negotiator OR a fighter; has he embraced SEAL Team 6 OR Code Pink?

What if he is wise enough to embrace both - depending on the situation?

Bergen quotes from President Obama's speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, where he joined Reinhold Niebuhr in stating that he accepts the world as it is - rather than as we want it to be. In his role as Commander in Chief, that means being prepared to use military force. But Bergen fails to talk about what the President said next.
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.  And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms.  But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." A gradual evolution of human institutions.
I'm also reminded of the President's words at his inauguration.
And so, to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.  And we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations...

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you...

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
It is only a small mind that cannot envision leadership that incorporates both the fighter AND the negotiator...both the thinker AND the actor. Regardless of whether he always gets it right in every situation, the fact of the matter is that we have a President who embraces both.

4 comments:

  1. When now President Obama made his comments about acting on intelligence, the punditubbies couldn't move fast enough to put their mobile fainting couches into place.

    Well, what do you know? That was exactly what happened.

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  2. This is to me a very depressing reminder of a thought I've had for a bit now, which is that we face a very serious crisis of quality of our elites. In any elitist system--and we can argue about how elitist ours is, or of what nature our elite is, etc.--the elites need to be good at being elite. In journalism more than any other field, we have a really weak roster of elites. Our best and brightest, etc. This type of dualistically idiotic thinking may well totally screw us as well as any number of other countries.

    I don't know if I mentioned that I went to a rich kids' school. Most of the teachers were good, a small few great, and I got a good education. I was one of the middle class kids whose folks put all their expendable income and home equity into the kids' schooling. We actually had to produce in the school, and as a group the middle class kids were very fine students. Now, the kids on scholarship, almost entirely of color from working class, non-white neighborhoods, really had to kick ass, but at the same time doing so made them a target of the rich kids' and also much of the middle class kids' racist consternation. Actually, any Black or Latino kid was widely assumed to be on a scholarship even though most weren't. It was difficult to pull off, but they basically all did because they were total ass kickers, intellectually.

    Obama was a scholarship kid at a prep school. Much of the crap he takes in the press I am convinced happens because he sends the prigs in the media right back, mentally, to their prep school days when the scholarship kid next to them made it clear to the teacher that they hadn't actually done the reading.

    We need to deal with this as a country or we're f*&#$d.

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    Replies
    1. Very interesting theory about prep school.

      Perhaps I'm too elitist myself, but this just doesn't strike me as rocket science. So it seems to be about something more than basic intelligence.

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    2. I agree, it's not simply a matter of basic intelligence, though you need less intelligence to become a big shot at this point than you used to, particularly in media. The thing that gets me is how the meme-of-the-week, some idiot turn of phrase, worms its way into the sentences of the entire chattering class. The ability to parrot a phrase while seeming to be engaged in thought on a subject is a better predictor of media success than actual thinking. The subtext is that thinking is not something the public need be involved in. That's the actual, systemic role of our media.

      The President sticks out like a sore thumb. He actually read the books the teacher assigned. I am very serious about the prep school theory. A very small percentage of prep school kids actually engage with the material assigned. Rather, they know how to play the game. The good ones are absolutely great, but they're not the ones who staff our institutions in great numbers.

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