“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”Lewis fleshes out the process by which President Obama makes these difficult decisions by describing the meeting that was held about whether or not to join Britain and France in supporting "no-fly" zones over Libya during the uprising there.
In White House jargon this was a meeting of “the principals,” which is to say the big shots. In addition to Biden and Gates, it included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon (who had organized the meeting), and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (on a video screen from New York). The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. “Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” says one participant. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.” Says another person at the meeting, “He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do.”As all "the principals" reported on current intelligence, President Obama relentlessly asked what this would mean for the people of Benghazi. The answer was that tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of people would be killed.
Pentagon representatives presented two options: a no-fly zone or do nothing at all.
The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”What it came down to is that the no-fly zone was a non-starter because it wouldn't do anything to stop the Gaddafi forces on the ground headed for Benghazi. The principals supported the "do nothing" option and the junior people thought we shouldn't stand by and watch another genocide.
Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” he says. “Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-making.” But it’s more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his status needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established status structures. After all, he became president.
Obama sided with the junior people and gave the generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider. The rest...as they say...is history.
The whole thing reminds me of snippets I've heard about similar processes that happened when President Obama was developing his strategy for Afghanistan early in his administration and when he made the decision to go after bin Laden.
I've highlighted some of the things that I think are most significant about his process. But more than anything is the fact that he was relentless in his focus on what would work to save the lives of the people of Benghazi. That became his "north star" in this situation - even when the objections of many of the principals centered around the idea that it would involve a politically risky move with very little payoff.
That's how this guy rolls when it comes time to make the tough calls.