Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Permission structure" and The Art of War

President Obama at his news conference this week:
...the point is that there are common-sense solutions to our problems right now. I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions. I can urge them to. I can put pressure on them. I can rally the American people around those common-sense solutions. But ultimately, they, themselves, are going to have to say, we want to do the right thing.

And I think there are members certainly in the Senate right now, and I suspect members in the House as well, who understand that deep down. But they're worried about their politics. It’s tough. Their base thinks that compromise with me is somehow a betrayal. They’re worried about primaries. And I understand all that. And we're going to try to do everything we can to create a permission structure for them to be able to do what’s going to be best for the country. But it’s going to take some time.
That reference to a "permission structure" set off a flurry of commentary. Perhaps the seminal article that captured what President Obama is doing was written by Brian Beutler. If you haven't read it already, please be sure to do so. John Sides agrees with Beutler and also provides lots of links to what folks are saying about all of this.

But when I heard the President talk about creating a permission structure, what came to my mind is the  idea of letting your opponents save face in defeat. It is an ancient strategy from Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
If you surround the enemy, leave an outlet; do not press an enemy that is cornered.
A google search sent me to this interesting article about the fact that President Obama quoted Sun Tzu to a group of Jewish leaders in talking to them about his approach to Iran. The author explains:
We need to let people save face, especially when their only alternative left when surrounded (and sanctioned) is to battle to the bitter end. The key here is Obama is taking the more difficult yet desirable route of winning without fighting. Anybody can fight -- only the wise truly win.
What is interesting to me is that if President Obama is attempting to create a permission structure (or to allow the Republicans to "save face"), then its also true that the opposition is surrounded. As I've been suggesting for a while now, the forces that are aligned against him look very much like a beast in its death throes.

We might take just a moment to recognize how we got there. As Susan Milligan said in her article that I quoted yesterday:
Latinos, other minorities and women are becoming more powerful, both in numbers and in political representation. Gay marriage is becoming more acceptable. That may be world-shaking for social conservatives. But making Obama fail won't halt the trend.
In other words, the coalition of the ascendant has cornered the dying beast.

But another factor that has gotten us to this place is something I've been talking about for awhile now, President Obama's conciliatory rhetoric as ruthless strategy. Mark Schmitt explains:
The reason the conservative power structure has been so dangerous, and is especially dangerous in opposition, is that it can operate almost entirely on bad faith...One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem. If they have nothing, it shows. And that's not a tactic of bipartisan Washington idealists -- it's a hard-nosed tactic of community organizers, who are acutely aware of power and conflict.
In addition to demonstrating that they have nothing, by offering to meet Republicans half-way (or more sometimes) President Obama has given them two alternatives: either work with him or back themselves into an ever more extremist corner. Of course their strategy of obstruction has meant the latter.

And so we have a cornered opposition that has descended into chaos. Sun Tzu would suggest that "winning" means giving them an outlet to save face in defeat.


  1. that's all nice happy talk theory and strategery, but what should be foremost and not forgotten is that EVERY face-saving outlet for republicans/conservatives means a lot of people are going to suffer unnecessarily.

    1. ...a so-called "win" may make obama look good, but it means he sacrificed a whole bunch of people to make himself look good. obama has been WAY too obsessed with making republicans look good.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. obama has been WAY too obsessed with making republicans look good.

      LOL! Yeah, I guess that's why their approval ratings are in the tank.

    4. Gonna have to disagree.

      The alternative to giving Republicans a way to save face is to just not do a single thing.

      With the House, and enough votes in the Senate to filibuster, Republicans have veto power over everything.

  2. Pluege needs to become more comfortable with power. Ideological purity no matter how noble the goals don't give us the power we need to make progress towards those goals. That means we rarely get everything we want now but start to make the progress towards those goals overall.

    If we had more power we could move faster but right now we don't have it and many liberals/progressives are still uncomfortable with having power means to their identity.

  3. I am very conciliatory by nature. However, the Republicans have been given endless opportunities to escape and regroup. I'm afraid they must be defeated to the point where they see they have no option but to change. Remember, Sun Tzu wrote long before the concept of total war. The Republicans understand that. If victor were at hand for them, they would offer no quarter. The Democrats seem strangely confused on that point. Note that Obama has done the best with the Republicans when he has been least yielding. I don't think we should be looking for a way to allow Republicans to save face. We should look for a way to make them fear for their survival. They will respond much better to that.

    1. I would suggest that most Republicans already fear for their survival. That is what is contributing to the chaos in their ranks. What PBO is doing is creating an escape route for those that are still in touch with some sanity.

    2. You mention total war offhandedly as if it is simply a fact, like gravity, that we must accept. It's not, and I don't. The point is maximize the extent to which we don't fight. We can argue about how to accomplish that.

  4. I am a couple of days late to this thread, SP. Busy, etc. Truly. And I am being a civic participant with my new plot at the community garden. However!

    I am pleased that Sun Tzu is entering our discussion. I've become a pacifist by this point in my life, straight-up. But war is a fact in this world. So, putting Sun Tzu in the discussion is great, because he said, "the ultimate goal of war is peace."

    I think what some commenters here are doing is failing to distinguish between a war and a battle. That, and misunderstanding how one wins wars.

    In all wars--or any win/lose struggle--the key to winning is getting your adversary to stop fighting. That's all. You can do that by totally annihilating them, by genocide. We could aim for a government that was 100% Democrat. It would be an improvement over the present, divided one to be sure in all kinds of ways. Problem with that goal is that a) it's not a likely outcome of the struggle as I see it and b) to get there would involve all kinds of behavior I don't think we really need to engage in.

    Sun Tzu's point was that if you don't leave an opponent an exit, they'll keep fighting. And that is contrary to the larger goal of war: peace.

    I can debate the merits of any particular compromise, but in politics tactical compromise, well-executed, is the tactical mechanism of strategic victory. It's often said that the intellectual left tended to focus too exclusively on the why of power, where community organizers, above all Alinsky, thought profoundly about the how.

    I would just ask anyone who opposes leaving Republican politicians a face-saving exit what their endgame is, what their strategy for arriving at that endgame is, and what tactical steps they would propose to implement that strategy. My sense is that there is no strategy at all in a meaningful sense, just an understandable feeling that "this compromise sucks."

    Sheman famously noted that "war is hell."


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