MoDo has produced a thing called “Barry Trails Off…” She informs us all about the lesson she says Barack Obama never learned: leadership and salesmanship are intertwined. The Moustache of Wisdom says “It’s Not Just About Us,” and has a question: How can the U.S. impact the Middle East and all its complexities? Here’s MoDo:
President Obama likes to be alone.
When he speaks at rallies, he doesn’t want the stage cluttered with other officeholders. When he rides in his limo, he isn’t prone to give local pols a lift. He wants to feel that he doesn’t owe his ascension to anyone else — not a rich daddy, not a spouse or father who was president, not even those who helped at pivotal moments. He believes he could do any job in his White House or campaign, from speechwriter to policy director, better than those holding the jobs.
So Obama knows that he alone is responsible for his unfathomable retreat into his own head while 70 million people watched. He hadn’t been nailing it in debate prep either, taking a break to visit the Hoover Dam, and worried aides knew his head wasn’t in it. When the president realized what a dud he was, he apologized to flummoxed and irritated advisers.
Once during the 2008 campaign, reading about all the cataclysms jolting the economy and the world, Obama joked to an adviser: “Maybe I should throw the game.” This time, he actually threw the game. And shaved points right off his poll ratings. The president is good at analyzing the psychology of other world leaders, and he wrote an acclaimed memoir about his long, lonely odyssey of self-discovery. But he doesn’t always do a good job at analyzing his own psychology to avoid self-destructive patterns.
David Maraniss, who wrote biographies of Bill Clinton and Obama, said that both men had recurring themes. Clinton would plant “the seeds of his own undoing” and then “find a way to recover.” Obama’s personality, Maraniss said, was shaped by his desire to avoid traps created by his unusual family and geographical backgrounds, and the trap of race in America.
“It helped explain his caution, his tendency to hold back and survey life like a chessboard, looking for where he might get checkmated,” Maraniss wrote in “Barack Obama: The Story,” adding that it also made Obama seek to transcend confrontation.
While Mitt Romney did a great job of conjuring a less off-putting and hard-right Romney, Obama walked into a trap of his own devising.
It was a perfect psychological storm for the president. He performs better when his back is against the wall; he has some subconscious need to put himself in challenging positions. That makes it hard for him to surf success and intensity; he just suddenly runs out of gas and stops fighting, leaving revved up supporters confused and deflated. “That’s just his rhythm,” said one adviser.
Because Obama doesn’t relish confrontation, he often fails to pin his opponents on the mat the first time he gets the chance; instead, perversely, he pulls back and allows foes to gain oxygen. It happened with Hillary in New Hampshire and Texas and with Republicans in the health care and debt-ceiling debates. Just as Obama let the Tea Party inflate in the summer of 2009, spreading a phony narrative about “death panels,” now he has let Romney inflate and spread a phony narrative about moderation and tax math.
Even though Obama was urged not to show his pompous side, he arrived at the podium cloaked in layers of disdain; a disdain for debates, which he regards as shams, a venue, as the Carter White House adviser Gerry Rafshoon puts it, where “people prefer a good liar to a bad performer.”
Obama feels: Seriously? After all he did mopping up Republican chaos, does he really have to spend weeks practicing a canned zinger? Should the man who killed Osama bin Laden and personally reviews drone strikes have to put on a show of macho swagger?
Plus, he’s filled with disdain for Romney, seeing him as the ultimate slick boardroom guy born on third base trying to peddle money-making deals. Surely everyone sees through this con man?
Just as Poppy Bush didn’t try as hard as he should have because he assumed voters would reject Slick Willie, Obama lapsed into not trying because he assumed voters would reject Cayman Mitt.
The president averted his eyes as glittering opportunities passed, even when Romney sent a lob his way with a reference to his accountant.
Obama has been coddled by Valerie Jarrett, the adviser who sat next to Michelle at the debate, instead of the more politically strategic choice of local pols and their spouses. Jarrett believes that everyone must woo the prodigy who deigns to guide us, not the other way around.
At a fund-raising concert in San Francisco Monday night, the president mocked Romney’s star turn, saying “what was being presented wasn’t leadership; that’s salesmanship.”
It is that distaste for salesmanship that caused Obama not to sell or even explain health care and economic policies; and it is that distaste that caused him not to sell himself and his policies at the debate. His latest fund-raising plea is marked “URGENT.” But in refusing to muster his will and energy, and urgently sell his vision, he underscores his own lapses in leadership and undermines arguments for four more years.
Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Mitt Romney gave a foreign policy speech on Monday that could be boiled down to one argument: everything wrong with the Middle East today can be traced to a lack of leadership by President Obama. If this speech is any indication of the quality of Romney’s thinking on foreign policy, then we should worry. It was not sophisticated in describing the complex aspirations of the people of the Middle East. It was not accurate in describing what Obama has done or honest about the prior positions Romney has articulated. And it was not compelling or imaginative in terms of the strategic alternatives it offered. The worst message we can send right now to Middle Easterners is that their future is all bound up in what we do. It is not. The Arab-Muslim world has rarely been more complicated and more in need of radical new approaches by us — and them.
Ever since the onset of the Arab awakening, the U.S. has been looking for ways to connect with the Arab youths who spearheaded the revolutions; 60 percent of the Arab world is under age 25. If it were up to me, I’d put Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, in charge of American policy in the Arab-Muslim world. Because we need to phase out of the cold war business of selling arms there to keep “strongmen” on our side and in power, and we need to get into the business of sponsoring a “Race to the Top” in the Arab-Muslim world that, instead, can help empower institutions and strong people, who would voluntarily want to be on our side.
Look at the real trends in the region. In Iraq and Afghanistan, sadly, autocracy has not been replaced with democracy, but with “elective kleptocracy.” Elective kleptocracy is what you get when you replace an autocracy with an elected government before there are accountable institutions and transparency, while huge piles of money beckon — in Iraq thanks to oil exports, and in Afghanistan thanks to foreign aid.
Meanwhile, in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Iraq and Libya, we have also seen the collapse of the “Mukhabarat states” — Mukhabarat is Arabic for internal security services — but not yet the rise of effective democracies, with their own security organs governed by the rule of law. As we saw in Libya, this gap is creating openings for jihadists. As the former C.I.A. analyst Bruce Riedel put it in a recent essay in The Daily Beast, “The old police states, called mukhabarat states in Arabic, were authoritarian dictatorships that ruled their people arbitrarily and poorly. But they were good at fighting terror. … These new governments are trying to do something the Arab world has never done before — create structures where the rule of law applies and the secret police are held accountable to elected officials. That is a tall order, especially when terrorists are trying to create chaos.”
At the same time, the civil war between Sunni Muslims, led by the Saudis, and Shiite Muslims, led by Iran, is blazing as hot as ever and lies at the heart of the civil war in Syria. In addition, we also have a struggle within Sunni Islam between puritanical Salafists and more traditional Muslim Brotherhood activists. And then there is the struggle between all of these Islamist parties — who argue that “Islam is the answer” for development — and the more secular mainstream forces, who may constitute the majority in most Mideast societies but are disorganized and divided.
How does the U.S. impact a region with so many cross-cutting conflicts and agendas? We start by making clear that the new Arab governments are free to choose any path they desire, but we will only support those who agree that the countries that thrive today: 1) educate their people up to the most modern standards; 2) empower their women; 3) embrace religious pluralism; 4) have multiple parties, regular elections and a free press; 5) maintain their treaty commitments; and 6) control their violent extremists with security forces governed by the rule of law. That’s what we think is “the answer,” and our race to the top will fund schools and programs that advance those principles. (To their credit, Romney wants to move in this direction and Obama’s Agency for International Development is already doing so.)
But when we’re talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the new government in Libya, we cannot let them come to us and say: “We need money, but right now our politics is not right for us to do certain things. Give us a pass.” We bought that line for 50 years from their dictators. It didn’t end well. We need to stick to our principles.
This is going to be a long struggle on many fronts. And it requires a big shift in thinking in the Arab-Muslim world, argues Husain Haqqani, the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., from “us versus them to us versus our own problems.” And from “we are weak and poor because we were colonized” to “we were colonized because we were weak and poor.” Voices can be heard now making those points, says Haqqani, and I think we best encourage them by being very clear about what we stand for. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them, not us. Only then is it self-sustaining, and only then can our help truly amplify it.