- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I’ve got some real serious advice for my friends in the Obama administration: act quickly or the “dithering thing” is about to become this president’s “vision thing.”
For those of you who are too young to remember — and I know this blog skews toward a younger, hipper crowd than the rest of FP‘s more staid, respectable, and credible offerings — the “vision thing” became the brutal short-hand describing George H.W. Bush’s supposed lack of vision. It was one of those terms that was so memorable that it slipped into those every day water cooler conversations and became an unshakable part of the conventional wisdom that helped make Bush 41 a one-term president.
We’ve seen the phenomenon many times before. Sometimes, the phrase is self-inflicted as was “vision thing” or “I am not a crook.” Sometimes it is an image: John Kerry windsurfing, Michael Dukakis with silly helmet on. And as Gerald Ford and all these others discovered, the truth is not a defense. You can be, as Ford was, the best athlete ever to be president of the United States, a football All-American, and stumble down a flight of stairs or two and you are a clumsy doofus for the rest of your life.
Sticky phrases tied to potent concepts can undo a president or public figure as much as any action they take. Whether it’s a reputation for micro-management or skirt-chasing, once one of these nutshell descriptions sticks, it never goes away.
The alarms started going off in my head regarding this when I saw Tom Ricks’s post on the FP site earlier this week which was headlined “The Ditherer in Chief.” In it, Ricks laid out with typical economy and insight, why Obama’s “dithering” on settling on a strategy in Afghanistan or really moving forward in Iraq is a kind of unsettling counterpoint to George Bush’s “panic” in the wake of 9/11. Ricks, who I believe readers should take very seriously on matters such as this, said that as a result of the president’s seeming lack of decisiveness on these critical issues, he (Ricks) had become, for the first time, worried about Obama’s foreign policy.
Ricks concluded by saying that if he were forced to choose, he’d take dithering over panic. But it was clear, he has become a member of an ever growing group, many of whom are extremely pro-Obama Democrats, that have grown impatient with the president’s handling of those aspects of his presidency that have life and death implications for U.S. troops.
I should note, I am not personally of the same view. Provided the administration reaches a decision on its going forward strategy in Afghanistan in the next several weeks as Secretary Gates indicated this weekend that it would, I welcome the systematic assessment and reassessment of our situation, the reaching out for multiple views including those of our allies (as reflected in the comments of NATO Secretary General Rasmussen yesterday), and the recognition that it is worth the delay to come to the best possible solution. We’ve seen where impulse and dogma-driven reflex will get us. We should welcome the impulse to interject thought into the process as we should the apparent willingness to puncture groupthink by seeking divergent perspectives.
To me the issue is whether the decision is the right one or not. Which, as readers of this blog know, in my view is a much narrower mission in Afghanistan, a focus on getting a tolerable, semi-effective government in place in Kabul, and then moving more toward a counter-terror strategy that involves fewer locally-based forces and more over-the-horizon interventions be they drones or ship-based special forces operations as recently took place in Somalia.
But as mentioned above, the facts won’t matter to opponents of the president or to the average voter who has bandwidth for little more than a twitter-length description of the president, a string of bits of conventional wisdom that constitute what passes for the total persona of the commander-in-chief.
Professor Obama and community-organizer-in-chief Obama are both compelling identities to many Democrats (and in many ways welcome ones). But they simply don’t cut it on pressing national security issues. The expectations of the public and the defense community which people like Tom Ricks knows so well may be conventional but they are unshakable. Leaders must lead. Decisions must be crisp. The human stakes are in fact undeniably high. Days and weeks do matter…and commanders need to show they “get it.” And over all, you need to convey a sense that you have that “vision thing”, a sense of where you want to go and that it doesn’t take a seminar to reach every decision.
Part of the problem for Obama is that he started out headed in the wrong direction in Afghanistan and he needs to change course. There is no easy way to do it. And it may sting politically. But ultimately, courage carries a lot of weight and is one of the antidotes to the dithering argument. Another potential antidote is offering up different, better stories and images. I am not sure why the Somalia operation did not get more play. It seems to have been a great example of good leadership and the U.S. military effectively doing their very tough job. Identifying the president more closely with the successes of the military will help (assuming they are real and he is truly behind them … “Mission Accomplished” moments are precisely the kind this president … and all presidents … need to avoid.) And of course, the best potential antidote is more decisiveness whenever it is responsible.
It is not too late to keep this label from sticking. But it’s getting there.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images