What Barack can learn from Benedict

In a weekend photo op with his ally and the bane of his existence, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama joked to reporters that every so often he gets something right. (Obama, that is. There is widespread agreement that recently Karzai almost never gets anything right.) After a NATO summit that went about as well as could ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In a weekend photo op with his ally and the bane of his existence, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama joked to reporters that every so often he gets something right. (Obama, that is. There is widespread agreement that recently Karzai almost never gets anything right.)

After a NATO summit that went about as well as could be expected, however, you could understand why the president felt buoyed enough to joke about his own fallibility.

Still, the problem with judging performance based on discrete events is that you can make progress on a plan and then discover later that the plan itself was ill conceived to begin with. This seems to be the way Obama and Co. are headed on Afghanistan, on the Israel-Palestine talks, and on Iran. They are taking credit for apparent steps forward ... and in the context of the execution of their plans, they deserve it. But the trajectories they are on in all three cases are likely to produce long-term results that are disappointing at best and that could ultimately be viewed as fairly disastrous.

In a weekend photo op with his ally and the bane of his existence, Hamid Karzai, Barack Obama joked to reporters that every so often he gets something right. (Obama, that is. There is widespread agreement that recently Karzai almost never gets anything right.)

After a NATO summit that went about as well as could be expected, however, you could understand why the president felt buoyed enough to joke about his own fallibility.

Still, the problem with judging performance based on discrete events is that you can make progress on a plan and then discover later that the plan itself was ill conceived to begin with. This seems to be the way Obama and Co. are headed on Afghanistan, on the Israel-Palestine talks, and on Iran. They are taking credit for apparent steps forward … and in the context of the execution of their plans, they deserve it. But the trajectories they are on in all three cases are likely to produce long-term results that are disappointing at best and that could ultimately be viewed as fairly disastrous.

This not only illustrates the problem of doing foreign policy analysis as it is done on cable TV — news cycle by news cycle — but it also illustrates one of the problems associated with recently fairly commonplace wonkish analyses that overvalue good policy processes. Good processes that produce lousy policies are actually not so good.

That said, one of the best tests of a good process is whether it recognizes when a mistake is being made and is able to make a mid-course correction. (The mistakes in question include prolonging the agony in Afghanistan when the cost of staying doesn’t reconcile with the relative gains, getting bogged down in the distraction of the settlements debate with the Israelis, and letting short-term negotiating gains with Iran or North Korea distract from the damage done by their long-term commitments to building their own nuclear capabilities.)

When mid-course corrections involve stepping back from high-profile policies, of course, it often takes leadership from above to allow the worker-bees in the process the cover to make necessary adjustments.

In this respect, I now write words that I never thought I would write: Perhaps Barack Obama ought to consider taking a page out of the book of Pope Benedict.

Benedict began his tenure with a series of statements, actions and inactions that deeply damaged the stature of the Vatican. But to his credit, the conservative prelate has shown, at age 83, an apparent willingness to listen and adjust, even if only modestly.  

Initially, the adjustments came as he moved the church forward in terms of coming to grips with the dark stain of abuses by Catholic priests. There is a long way to go but no one who is fair minded can deny that after a period of infuriating tone-deafness on this issue, Benedict, has during the past year turned a corner on this issue.

Now, this past weekend, he seems to be beginning a similar turn on the question of condom use, suggesting that there are actually circumstances (as in the case of male prostitutes) where using condoms may be seen as a moral positive and thus acceptable. It was a small step and he must go a long way to undo the damage caused by preaching against the use of condoms even among those with HIV. But it was a significant enough break with past policy that it immediately and predictably caused some in the Vatican hierarchy to try to walk it back as not being official church doctrine. Nonetheless, even Vatican spokespeople acknowledged the shift with one quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, "Benedict XVI has courageously given us an important contribution, clarifying and deepening a long-debated question. It’s an original contribution."

For a man whose job it is to preserve ancient doctrines and whose temperament seems to be that of a strict traditionalist, the Pope’s relative flexibility is a welcome development for a church that must adapt to remain relevant and overcome recent setbacks. It is also an excellent example to leaders everywhere that frequently progress comes not from trying to maintain a veneer of infallibility but from accepting it as a human and thus inevitable aspect of their characters … even when doctrine, position, or the warm buzz of sycophants suggest such self-awareness isn’t necessary. Great leaders aren’t infallible. They are the ones who best learn from and take swift and appropriate steps to correct their mistakes.

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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