Saturday, August 23, 2014

Slow learning, poor context, and disloyalty

As I ease back in after a lovely vacation horseback riding in the isolation of the British Columbia mountains, I'd like to take one moment to comment on items that have piqued my curiosity as I've caught up on recent newspaper articles.  (Don't worry: Health care topics return soon, but this post also relates to my other favorite topics--leadership, cognitive errors, and negotiation.)

First, there's Thomas Friedman's August 8 interview with President Obama, with these final paragraphs:

Whether it is getting back into Iraq or newly into Syria, the question that Obama keeps coming back to is: Do I have the partners — local and/or international — to make any improvements we engineer self-sustaining?

“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day,” said Obama. “And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. ... Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. ... So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’ ”

My reaction? I am pleased that the President learned this lesson but am shocked that he needed to learn it and that it took him so long.  I guess this just proves that ignorance about international cultural and political issues was handed down from the previous Republican Administration to the current Democratic one.

Then, today's story:

While President Obama has long resisted being drawn into Syria’s bloody civil war, officials said recent advances by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had made clear that it represents a threat to the interests of the United States and its allies. The beheading of James Foley, the American journalist, has contributed to what officials called a “new context” for a challenge that has long divided the president’s team.

“If you come after Americans, we’re going to come after you, wherever you are,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, where Mr. Obama is on a much-interrupted vacation.

Huh, the death on one American is enough to change the context?  What theory of geopolitical action supports that kind of approach?  Is one American free-lance photographer who entered a war zone and has been missing for two years valued more than this result:

The number of dead in Syria’s civil war more than doubled in the past year to at least 191,000, the United Nations human rights office said Friday. The agency’s chief, Navi Pillay, bluntly criticized Western nations, saying their inaction in the face of the slaughter had “empowered and emboldened” the killers.

I don't claim to know the right answers to all these very difficult issues, and I don't expect our leader to be correct in the face of complex, changing circumstances.  But I'd feel a lot better if the narrative we received from our government indicated that they had a rigorous approach to decision making and a coherent strategy and purpose. 


As a side note, how low class is this?

The president has long expressed skepticism that more assertive action by the United States, including arming Syrian rebels as urged in 2011 by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, would change the course of the civil war there.

What kind of former Secretary of State would let it be known that she disagreed with her sitting President while he is still in office?  When you have served in that kind of confidential advisory position, it is totally inappropriate to let the world know that you were second-guessing the president's decisions or advising against his course of action.

Of course, Hillary's folks have done this before, about Libya in 2011, when this self-serving story was offered to the New York Times:

Within hours, Mrs. Clinton and the aides had convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act, and the president ordered up military plans, which Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, hand-delivered to the White House the next day.

Again, when you are Secretary of State, your duty of loyalty is to the President.  It is just not right to give the world a sense of your influential powers in the White House. These kinds of inside stories should be saved for memoirs long after the President's term is over.

Unfortunately, the Clinton's do not understand this kind of loyalty.


An email I received said...

Yikes, I didn't sign up to hear your political perspective. As with most who have expertise in one area, it doesn't translate into other rhelms. Sadly, as with said same, you quixotically opine as if it does. #bummer

Paul Levy said...

My response:

I have actually have more governmental experience and expertise than health care expertise. But even if I didn't, these are observations that don't require much expertise.

Stephen H. Owades said...

From Facebook:

We are a democracy, and a very war-weary one. The reason the brutal killing of James Foley "changes the context" is that it makes Americans aware, in a visceral fashion, of what's at stake in Syria and Iran with ISIS/ISIL. And no US President can ignore the feelings of the public in matters like this.

Isam Osman said...

From Facebook:

At last! Someone who is directing the narrative in the right direction! The key sentence for me is 'ignorance of international culture and politics'. Do western policy makers really understand the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims. The distrust and hatred that is driving this Muslim on Muslim violence. Yesterday's oppressed are tomorrow's oppressors driven by a deep rooted centuries old struggle. As a Muslim even I don't understand them sometimes.

These people are not ready for western style democracy yet. Nor I ask is it the best way for us in the Arab world. Look at Egypt. Back from the brink under a military ruler. Who would ever think we would rejoice at that. With all the scholars and combined intellect in the USA (and the UK who must also shoulder responsibility.)

I would have hoped that Foreign policy would have been a bit better informed. James Foley's death horrified the Muslim world and we are feeling the pain of this tragic loss. Yes one life but one lost life triggered the start of the First World War. Man is a visceral animal. Let's hope this loss gets us all thinking about how we are going to get ourselves out of this terrible mess!! Come on folks. We can do better!

Tom said...

And the congregation answered Ameyn. No surprise here.

Mitch said...

A great post, every point spot-on. You should write about so much more than health care.

Howard said...

I am not sure it is a good idea for you to get into political commentary (even though you rightfully label your interests as leadership, cognitive errors and negotiation). There are plenty of pundits/critics making their living articulating their positions.
I am concerned that your political observations will get you labeled one way or the other and bring out the haters. That can influence your ability to speak with authority, and be influential, in your fields of expertise.
Just a thought from one of your fans.

Paul Levy said...

Thanks for the advice! It's now out of my system. Stay tuned for some meaty health care stuff in the next few days!