Saturday, September 15, 2012

President Obama's process for making the tough calls

Yesterday when I wrote about Michael Lewis' story titled The Obama Way, I included this quote.
“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.”

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.
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 sided with the junior people and gave the generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider. The they 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.


  1. Mo'nin, Ms. Pants

    Yes, I'm still here. Just been lurking but haven't missed any of your pieces and, often, read any of them multiple times. So it was with this one.

    Looks like I'm gonna have to read all of Mr. Lewis' piece. It's interesting, from the blog perspective, how Mr. Lewis' piece is being digested. Just for example, you speak to how Lewis goes into detail re: how PBO makes decisions (which, if we've been listening, we have heard before and any number of people say the same thing). Booman, while recommending it be read, defines this as a "fluff piece" and any number of his commentariat seem to think the same.

    Always good to get a variety of perspectives.

    1. Well you're going to have to get better at simply stopping in to say "howdy" if nothing else. I WAS beginning to wonder where you'd gotten off to.

      I read Booman about this - as well as the 2 posts he linked to. Sometimes I think that cynicism too often comes in the DNA of liberals. So much so that when someone writes something about a leader, if it doesn't include at least a nod to tearing them down a bit - it must be "fluff."

      For example, everything from how Obama runs a meeting like this to how and with whom he chooses to play basketball tells us something about the kind of man he is. Some people would look at those things and call them weaknesses. That Lewis talks about them positively is written off by the very people who value them as fluff. Fascinating!

  2. Besides the analyses which are more critical of Lewis and/or cynical regarding the piece, I'm also seeing, on Booman's site and others, a prevailing blithe dismissal of the Administration's intelligence on the potential for a massacre at Benghazi.

    The dismissive attitude itself isn't surprising coming from commentors who believe they see each political situation more accurately and astutely than PBO. But I think this bothers me more than it possibly should, because I see a sort of sneering disdain for the moral argument to prevent a genocide from the *same people* who bring exclusively moral objections to the use of drone attacks against al Qaeda principal actors.

    When they casually discard as "hype" the expectation of 'tens-to-hundreds-of-thousands' of potential victims of Gadhaffi's expressed motivation to collectively punish the rebellion at Benghazi, they also preempt *that* moral imperative as an allowable factor in Obama's decision tree, allowing them to magnify their own preferred high minded general objections to the exercise of American military power. I'm not sure I see a big difference between this sort of blindered consideration and the moral/mental gymnastics on display at any of a number of right wing media outlets.

    1. I'm not sure I see a big difference between this sort of blindered consideration and the moral/mental gymnastics on display at any of a number of right wing media outlets.

      I totally agree. On the one hand, I despair at the lack of critical thinking that goes into those kinds of arguments. On the other hand, its a vivd reminder to me that I am probably prone to do the same.

      Over the last few weeks I've been hanging out in the comment threads of Greenwald's new gig at the Guardian trying to see what I can learn via an attempt to engage his followers. That awareness of our own potential for blind spots is my big takeaway. They are so quick to see it in others and completely blind to their own. Its a cautionary tale to me. I suspect we're all vulnerable to doing the same.


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