Friday, August 7, 2015

President Obama on Finding Openings

On Wednesday, President Obama met with ten journalists to discuss the Iran deal. I found this part of Max Fisher's report to be fascinating.
Toward the end of our meeting with President Obama, one of us asked whether the Iran nuclear deal might change the future of that country's poisonously anti-American politics, and Obama drifted from the technical and political details he'd otherwise focused on into something of a more reflective tone.

"I just don’t know," he said, leaning back a bit in his chair for the first time since he'd arrived. "When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out.

"He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping would suddenly come in and decide that it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice, and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march," Obama said, paraphrasing the famous aphorism by Mao's successor that capitalistic policies were acceptable if they helped China. "You couldn’t anticipate that."...

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China's transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran's regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon's historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China's under Deng, opportunities like Nixon's trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find "openings" for such moments.
That is a fascinating and incredibly wise grasp of how history works - even for the most powerful person on the planet. It is a striking rebuke of much that we hear from would-be Republican leaders these days who presume that a President of the United States can control world events via military dominance. For those with some knowledge of history, it is especially important given that the discussion is taking place about a country where we tried that back in 1953 and paid the price for it via the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It reminds me of comments President Obama has made in two other interviews with journalists. First of all, David Remnick.
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.
In other words, one of the ways you find openings is to get your paragraph right.

Secondly, he said this in an interview with Tom Friedman.
What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.
Openings are made possible when your self-confidence allows you to take calculated risks.

To sum up: Getting your paragraph right by staying true to your North Star, combined with the self-confidence to take calculated risks, creates openings that can lead to transformative change.

WOW! is what I have to say about that.

I have a hunch that decades from now we'll being bearing the fruit of openings this President has made possible with that kind of wisdom.


  1. "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."

    -- Arthur Schopenhauer

  2. Call me crazy, but Russia or China should be received as cautionary tales. 45 years after Mao, China is a toxic dystopia. It's literally Blade Runner without the androids. And post-Cold War Russia is a right-wing fascist state that has a very whimsical approach to the sovereignty of its former provinces. Post-Camp David Egypt has cycled through two military juntas, with decades of deprivation and repression in between.

    If Revolutionary Iran "reforms" thanks to Western rapprochement any way like any of those examples, pray for the Iranian people.

    1. There is far more fervent sentiment among the Iranian people for opening up to the West and building a freer society than in China or Russia, and a lot less of the toxic and paranoid nationalism that saturates those places (though Iran does have its nationalist fanatics too). Even in an ideological authoritarian state like Iran, public sentiment matters a lot.

      The current breakthrough would not have been possible without the election of the avowedly-reformist Rouhani, which in turn was only possible due to the mass protests after the ayatollahs stole the 2009 election. No such assertion of people power paved the way for Nixon's trip to China. Yes, this was a target only Obama was able to see, but that's partly a reflection of the blindness of his political rivals in Washington as well as of the keenness of his own insight.

      As the last quote suggests, this is a calculated risk. No one can be sure of the eventual outcome. But it has greatly reduced the risk of war and given eighty million people a better chance for a free future than they had before.

    2. Good points, Infidel. Thank you for taking the time.

    3. Infidel753 - this is one of those times I really wish I had an "uprate" button for comments. Thanks so much for that one!!

    4. It's no calculated risk at all. I think I just pretty definitely proved it doesn't matter if a society "liberalizes" or not. What difference has it made? We do business with everybody now. There was never a World War III. Levels of war are at historic global minimums. Diplomats have pretty much only ever got their way in any of our lifetimes, I'm just pointing out that the empirical record has confounded optimistic projections.

      I don't think Americans understand how societies can remain functioning in times of deprivation and scarcity, and how that confines possibilities for political and social upheaval. Certainly it's chic to view Iran as a bunch of secret Western liberals who love women and homosexuals and are only being kept down by the bad men, but if it doesn't really pan out it's a quick jaunt off to the next redemptive case in waiting. I remember when the Arab Spring was the great breakthrough of our times.

    5. We can't take the behavior of Russia and China out of context with our own behavior. We invaded Iraq. Full Stop.

  3. He saw an opening to get rid of the bulk of the chemical weapons in Syria, too. That's what the above quote about hitting the target no one can see is all about. Great post, Nancy.