15 September 2012
Michael Lewis’s piece in Vanity Fair, based on spending time with President Obama last year, is absolutely essential reading.
I've seen some comments on twitter to the effect that the piece is basically out to make Obama seem like a nice guy. Well, that’s Michael Lewis’s schtick; he blends the big story with a feel for the personalities of the subjects. He does it very well; I got held up writing this, because it reminded me I never got around to reading The Blind Side, and that caused me to waste a day.
Obama probably is a nice guy, but that's not the big story, and it isn’t all that important either way.
There are two stories in the article; first the atmosphere of the presidency, and second the decision to overthrow Gadaffi.
The atmosphere is familiar, particularly reminding me of Nick Clegg saying he feels “lobotomised” by working in government, with the “frenetic” pace of politics leaving him with no time to think. Lewis says Obama “has the oddest relationship to the news of any human being on the planet. Wherever it starts out, it quickly finds him and forces him to make some decision about it: whether to respond to it, and shape it, or to leave it be. As the news speeds up, so must our president’s response to it”.
An incidental point is Lewis’s judgement that “He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them.” To me that is just a sign of someone who doesn’t understand politics very well. (Some have suggested that Obama is some kind of cynical political operator, based on his participation in the famously grubby Chicago political machine. But that may overestimate his role there — he may well have been a piece on the board there, rather than a chessplayer).
Lewis represents as exceptional and courageous Obama’s refusal to make a snap decision on whether to support a no-fly zone over Libya in March 2011. Rather than deciding in one meeting, he demanded a second meeting with alternative actions suggested that, unlike a no-fly zone, would actually work.
And so to the second big story. If Lewis’s account is to be believed, the decision to take out the Libyan army on the road to Benghazi, thereby destroying the Libyan state and producing a revolutionary government, was made entirely on the basis of the humanitarian issue caused by the steps Gadaffi would be likely to take to regain control of Benghazi. The arguments made against decisively taking the rebel side in the civil war were purely based on the cost and the risk of tying up further US military resources. The question of who would take over Libya and what they would do afterwards doesn’t seem to have arisen; rather, “The ghosts of 800,000 Tutsis were in that room.” The mind boggles.
But, from Obama’s position, the decision was made in a few hours here and there. I have put more time into deciding whether to buy a DVD.
The overwhelming fact is the constraint of available time. Any person, of whatever ability and whatever theoretical power, can be made impotent just by keeping them busy. And if the only decisions which are referred to the top level are the ones which are so well-balanced as to be 50-50, the leader might just as well toss a coin.
Therefore, the only real way to gain power is as a group: one leader and a few loyal sidekicks. The sidekicks have the real power, because they have time to think. The leader is effectively their frontman.
Alternatively, the leader can take one issue, allowing a sidekick to handle everything else. That’s the setup described in Heinlein’s The Man Who Sold The Moon, and referred to by Fred Brooks in The Missing Man-Month.