What’s better than the best and the brightest?
Talent is important. There is no doubt about it. But character and attitude are defining. Yesterday, nearing the end of the longest set in the 133-year history of Wimbledon, locked in a titanic struggle with an opponent who was playing heroic tennis, Roger Federer said he told himself that “at 13-13 in the fifth set, ...
Talent is important. There is no doubt about it. But character and attitude are defining. Yesterday, nearing the end of the longest set in the 133-year history of Wimbledon, locked in a titanic struggle with an opponent who was playing heroic tennis, Roger Federer said he told himself that “at 13-13 in the fifth set, I’m exactly where I want to be, just a few points from victory.” Sure, you can look at things negatively, but my positive side is important and I really believed right until the end.”
If Federer has an equal in the world of sports in terms of character and attitude, it is his friend, another who is the best to have ever played his sport, Tiger Woods. Yesterday, he too stood at a turning point in a tournament, having lost sole possession of his lead thanks to a bad shot on the preceding hole. “You can go either way,” Woods is quoted as saying in today’s Washington Post, “You can win the tournament or you can lose the tournament.” Of course, once again, Woods like Federer summoned what was necessary to win. As Barry Svrluga wrote in the Post, “pressure, with Woods, is like an old, dear embraceable friend.” It is not a friend because it feels good. It is a friend because his extraordinary gift for handling pressure, like Federer, is what separates him from his opponents time and time again.
These events, juxtaposed with the death of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Obama’s trip to Russia and to the G8 meeting, drive home an important message. David Halberstam’s classic book about McNamara and his colleagues during the Kennedy administration is, of course, called The Best and the Brightest. It is a phrase that has worked its way into the language, often invoked about the glittering prizes Obama has surrounded himself with. What has been forgotten is Halberstam’s message. The title was ironic. Being the best and the brightest is not enough. More than anything else, character matters. The ability to rise up and play at your best in the face of the greatest pressure is why often those with seemingly limited tools from Lincoln to Truman, outperform the academic superstars and those with the fancy degrees, like Carter or George W. Bush. (Of course, it didn’t help Bush that he was neither the best nor the brightest nor possessed of the character of a great leader.)
We already have some clues as to what may test the character of Obama’s national security team. His meetings today in Russia suggest one relationship which is certain to do so. Despite the face-saving “framework agreement” (a Washington euphemism for a decision to keep talking in spite of differences so serious that they kept the sides from providing any real progress for the leaders to hail in their meetings), it is clear that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not going to be an easy one for Obama. Last week he took a couple of swipes at Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and yesterday he offered encouragement for reforms proposed by Putin’s protégé, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Whether this was deft maneuvering was debated in today’s papers but it is clear that the U.S. administration is uncomfortable with Putin’s often confrontational, often anti-democratic, sometimes overtly anti-U.S. stance.
As noted here last week, senior State Department officials feel Russia has been far from helpful on the issue of Iran’s nukes. It has been provocative in its own near abroad. It has used its energy supplies as a cudgel that heightens regional tensions. And it is not making matters easier by demanding the U.S. back away from plans for an East European missile defense as part of any arms deal. Obama & Co. have been properly tight-lipped on this but I’m concerned that their impulse is to give in on this issue — at least in part because they are starting to believe their own rhetoric that the missile defenses are designed primarily to keep out Iranian ballistic missiles. Iran is of course, a concern. But so too is Russia. In fact, let’s be honest: it is a hostile, highly armed, economically and socially challenged Russia that remains the main reason to have such a defense. If not because of threats they post today then because they may well pose serious threats in the future. (And if you don’t believe missile defense works well enough to fight for it…view it purely as a useful bargaining chip.)
It would almost certainly be politically easier to cave on the missile defenses in order to win some progress on an arms deal with Russia. Just as it would be politically easier to proceed with a deal with Iran on nukes even if we don’t really believe they will honor it or let us effectively monitor them. Just as it is politically easier to take a partial solution on health care or half a loaf on climate change. The looming question is whether this an administration that talks a good game but folds when the going gets tough. (And of course, I’m hopeful it’s not.)
The Russians we know will press and press and bully and bully. The question is whether Obama will be able to respond shot for shot, holding his ground, remaining focused on his true goal, which needs to be not winning a round of negotiations but rather winning in the bigger contest of ensuring a more stable world in the long term. Frankly, the fact that reports out of Russia suggest some turbulence is encouraging to me, a sign of a U.S. team that is holding its ground. (Although I can’t help but comment that I think it is a little weird that neither the Secretary of State nor the Deputy Secretary of State is accompanying the president on this trip. Elbow injuries notwithstanding.)
On arms control, we learned over the weekend new details about Obama’s formative thinking on the issue thanks to a New York Times article exploring a paper he wrote on the subject while a student at Columbia. He has clearly been grappling with this issue a long time and as described in his Prague speech on his last major trip to Europe, he has described ambitious goals. If he can use concessions to the Russians on missile defense to advance those goals meaningfully, if he can use them to get the Russians to be more effective in helping to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, if he can use them to move Russia toward leading us to a meaningfully improved successor to Start I and that agreement in turn to build good will to move toward further reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles and ultimately toward a new NPT, excellent.
The difference between sports stars and presidents of course, is that when the character of presidents fail, we all lose. And when it succeeds, we all benefit. Watch the news this week from Moscow and Italy to see whether we can see whether Obama is learning the lessons of Federer, Woods…and McNamara.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.