Monday, December 7, 2009

Embracing Complexity

This is one of my favorite scenes from the movie 'Thirteen Days'...

I like this scene because it demonstrates a point in time when the complexity of a situation demonstrated a need for a deliberative process that yielded a strategy that defied conventional wisdom - and yet prevailed. The Cuban Missile Crisis, as we know call it now, was a metaphor for a world on the brink of self destruction. President John Kennedy's solution was not perfect. It was effective. It was designed to get Russia to remove its missiles from 90 miles off of American shores, allow Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev to save face, demonstrate American military might and political determination, while avoiding all of the pitfalls of the Bay of Pigs disaster. Oh, and I might add, avoid a nuclear war which would have destroyed the United States, Russia or both.

Tall orders - and a confluence of circumstances never before faced by a U.S. President. It called for deliberation and consensus. And it worked.

That's why New York Times columnist David Brooks recent offering is so important. Brooks is, by no means, an Obama apologist. But he gets something that liberals and conservatives are missing in their criticisms of this administration.

"All presidents have to adjust to these realities when they move to the White House. The only surprise with President Obama is how enthusiastically he has made the transition. He’s political, like any president, but he seems to vastly prefer the grays of governing to the simplicities of the campaign."

"The election revolved around passionate rallies. The Obama White House revolves around a culture of debate. He leads long, analytic discussions, which bring competing arguments to the fore. He sometimes seems to preside over the arguments like a judge settling a lawsuit."

"His policies are often a balance as he tries to accommodate different points of view. He doesn’t generally issue edicts. In matters foreign and domestic, he seems to spend a lot of time coaxing people along. His governing style, in short, is biased toward complexity."

A "governing style...biased toward complexity" is something we've grown unaccustomed to. We've grown used to 'alarms' and 'alerts', that require 'swift' action. We're used to seeing 'Mission Accomplished' signs before we've considered the fact that we are not at war with countries with whom we can demand unconditional surrender. And we've not realized that we cannot simply declare by edict what countries will and what countries will not be considered world powers. We've dismissed the idea that the have a world economy and that sheets of paper cannot replace manufacturing as our own economic base. Thus, the Obama presidency looks different than the Obama campaign. Just as the Bush presidency wasn't a mirror of his campaign. It was true of Clinton; and Bush before him; and Reagan before him and so on.
Mario Cuomo still goes unheeded and, therefore, unappreciated, "We campaign in poetry; we govern in prose".

The Obama Administration's modus operandi has its pros and cons: "The advantage of the Obama governing style is that his argument-based organization is a learning organization. Amid the torrent of memos and evidence and dispute, the Obama administration is able to adjust and respond more quickly than, say, the Bush administration ever did."

"The disadvantage is the tendency to bureaucratize the war. Armed conflict is about morale, motivation, honor, fear and breaking the enemy’s will. The danger is that Obama’s analytic mode will neglect the intangibles that are the essence of the fight. It will fail to inspire and comfort. Soldiers and Marines don’t have the luxury of adopting President Obama’s calibrated stance since they are being asked to potentially sacrifice everything."

There are corollary pros and cons in dealing with health care, the economy, gay, Hispanic, African-American and immigration issues. And seeking to deal strategically with these issues while trying to balance the competing interests that must support, provide legislation, implement and superintend that implementation is something that cannot be done by speech making or fiat.

But Brook's conclusion is something we must bear in mind as we evaluate this still new presidency.

"Barring a scientific breakthrough, we can’t merge Obama’s analysis with George Bush’s passion. But we should still be glad that he is governing the way he is. I loved covering the Obama campaign. But amid problems like Afghanistan and health care, it simply wouldn’t do to give gauzy speeches about the meaning of the word hope. It is in Obama’s nature to lead a government by symposium. Embrace the complexity. Learn to live with the dispassion."


Chris said...

Yes, that was what I read! (see comments yesterday) At least I know I'm not getting senile just yet.

My comment today would be that for all Obama's pretense of listening to every bit of advice, making it look like he is studying the issue, his Afganistan speech of last week was the same speech he gave on March 27th. He used almost the same words. The only difference was last week he gave a pull out start date. What was accomplished between March and December?

Gerald Britt said...

Didn't mean to make you doubt yourself, Chris. This was my mistake. Glad to confirm your mental alertness!