Monday, September 15, 2014

Rejoinders: Postscript

Orphan's Picnic, 1935. Via Mothgirlwings.
Saturday, I invited readers to fuck David Brooks, by which I meant of course that they should ignore him (or at least use protection!), but that was before I took a hard look at the article by Peter Baker in Sunday's dead-tree Times (and its echo by Michael Calderone in the HuffPost), which puts Brooks's Friday column, along with Friedman on Sunday, in a somewhat different light, since it turns out that Brooks and Friedman both attended an off-the-record chat with President Obama in which the president spoke to journalists about his plans to degrade-and-destroy the Islamic State-in-Waiting.

That suggests that what our two heroes are urging on Obama—Friedman, to follow his instinct for caution; Brooks, to abandon his instinct for "reluctance" in favor of passionate, Leaderly wrongness—is based on a real interaction allowing them to judge what his instincts are. I mean, that he's told them he's reluctant, right there in the White House, and they've believed him. So far, so good.

Baker himself confirms this from his own reporting (which did not include talking to anybody from the Times, of course, who would never reveal to a living soul anything that they had ever heard from anyone off the record, especially if the living soul was another Times employee, because ever since old Bush went to grass they've been following the rule book pretty strenuously):

He was acutely aware that the operation he was about to embark on would not solve the larger issues in that region by the time he left office. “This will be a problem for the next president,” Mr. Obama said ruefully, “and probably the one after that.” But he alternated between resolve as he vowed to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad if Syrian forces shot at American planes, and prickliness as he mocked critics of his more reticent approach to the exercise of American power.

“Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”
I thought it was pretty interesting to hear from Calderone that
Obama has long derided the 24-hour news cycle in which minor misstatements can become fodder for endless cable discussions. But throughout his presidency, he has used smaller, private meetings with influential columnists and commentators as a way to explain his positions before rolling out major foreign and domestic policy decisions.
Calderone's link there is to another story of his own, in Politico from 2010, that really gives the lie to stories (like David Sanger's) of the administration's refusal to play nice with the press—they may not have much time for the reportorial corps that shows up at the gaggle, but they pay an awful lot of attention to opinionists:
Andrew Rosenthal, The Times’ editorial page editor, says the Obama White House has been more “proactive” than the Bush White House was, offering up policy thinkers to more fully explain the administration’s positions — both before and after columns and editorials run. “I’ve had more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days than in the last eight years from Bush,” said Rosenthal.
Still another Calderone HuffPost story ties in with last week's question of Obama's true feelings about intervening in Syria last year, when Bashar al-Assad rather than the so-called ISIS was the projected enemy (and Senator McCain was posing for pictures with the guys he's longing to bomb today):
On Aug. 29 [2013], the president again sat down for an off-the-record discussion with Rosenthal and some members of the editorial board, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Times opinion columnists David Brooks, Gail Collins and Ross Douthat also attended, but editors for the paper's news pages did not.
The meeting came amid the White House’s push for military intervention in Syria, one of the topics discussed that day. The Times editorial board hadn't explicitly come out for or against a strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad before the meeting, and soon after the paper still expressed concerns about the administration taking action without congressional approval and broad international support.
So the Times op-ed pages of a year ago (just like this week's) are informed by a meeting with Obama in which they had a chance to assess exactly how he felt on the way to the non-attack on Syria that I was worrying over last Monday.

And if you look at them, the picture you get is remarkably diffident. Ross Douthat, who was at that meeting, imagines the president telling the general public that the attack isn't terribly logical but should proceed anyway:
And that’s really all this intervention is about. There is an acknowledged line around the use of chemical weapons, Assad’s government flagrantly crossed it, and we’re the only ones who can make him pay a price. Of course there’s something arbitrary about telling a dictator he can kill his subjects with bullets but not gas.  (Douthat, September 1 2013, channeling what he imagines the president might say)
The editorial department can't assert with certainty how invested Obama is in the plan:
There is little doubt that President Obama wants to take military action. (Editorial, September 2)
Little doubt, i.e., detectably more than zero. And "wanting" to take military action is putting it way too strongly; they accept Obama's insistence on the absolutely limited character of his aims, though not everybody things they are attainable, and his intention of doing it at the lowest possible cost, as little as possible:
The administration is still committed to establishing peace and avoiding a complete collapse of the Syrian state, which could result in even greater chaos. It is not clear that there is a strategy to accomplish that, especially if military action is undertaken and the administration moves forward with plans for increasing support for the so-called moderate opposition, whose unity and effectiveness remain in doubt. (Editorial, September 5)
I am nearly alone among pundits, so far as I can tell, in finding what I take to be the administration’s core strategic theory — that a limited strike could forestall further chemical attacks, policing a worthwhile international norm at a low cost to the United States — reasonably convincing, and more so in light of Syria’s apparent willingness to at least pretend to self-disarm. (Douthat, September 10 2013)
Friedman clearly thinks the whole thing is not exactly a bluff, but that Obama will be happier if he doesn't have to carrry it out (which is a lot like the way I was looking at it that fall):
I think it is worth Obama and Congress threatening to schedule a vote to endorse Obama’s threat of force — if the Syrians and Russians don’t act in good faith — but not schedule a vote right now. (That was essentially the president’s message in his speech Tuesday night.) By “threatening to threaten,” Obama retains leverage to keep the Syrians and Russians focused on implementing any agreement — but without having to test Congress’s real willingness to let him fulfill that threat. Because, if it failed to pass, the Russians and Syrians would have no incentive to move. If all of this sounds incredibly messy and confusing, it is. And while Obama and his team have contributed to this mess by way too much loose talk, in fairness, there is also a deep structural reason for it. Obama is dealing with an Arab world that no modern president has had to confront. Until 2010, the Arab Middle East had been relatively stable for 35 years. (Friedman, September 11 2013)
Of course it's Friedman, so it's not without its moments of hilarity. The amnesia in that "until 2010" (because I don't think it's a misprint for 2003). And even if he's excluding Iraq, what exactly is "relatively stable"? Does he maybe think that SyriaSyria!—not to mention Lebanon, Yemen, or the Palestinian territories, are somehow not in the Middle East?

No comments:

Post a Comment