There’s a lot that can be said about our President’s first year in office, some of which may be good, some of which may be bad. I’m not going to spend a lot of time highlighting specific stances on issues, to me that’s a waste of time. But there are some things that jump out at me once I take a step back and see the whole picture of how he operates. And as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about risk, the way someone deals with situations can be a lot more important than the decisions that are made themselves.
You see, there’s two big areas that a President has to spend his time: issues they want to push forward (their agenda) and the issues they must react to. Frankly, I’m much more interested in how a President handles the issues pushed on to them: those events are varied, sometimes random, and you can learn a lot more about a person by how they handle things thrust upon them versus what they try to push on others.
The first area I’d point to is the Copenhagen summit. The Financial Times has a great piece on what transpired there, the chaos, the dissonance, the wrangling. The insert entitled ‘Back-room bargaining’ is a must-read, and I dug up another account of the events described in that insert here, which offers a different context of the same events.
Regardless of how those events actually played out, the same breakdown is clear: the President and his advisers didn’t consider the possibility that other nations would sabotage the discussions and he was walking into a political trap. The Guardian has a very forthright account of the talks and China’s role in them. It also seems pretty clear to me the President and his staff assumed this was going to be an issue on which the world was going to follow him on, and he could act when he was ready. The Chinese, the Indians and the developing world essentially called an audible and Copenhagen ended up, in football parlance, as a broken play.
Same issue, different example: Iran. One of the best resources out there in the geopolitical arena is the team at Stratfor. They cover things most people don’t even hear about, but that’s not all: they have the ability to do really adept analysis that is unparalleled. Over the past weekend, Iranian forces staged an attack on an oil well in Iraq that got very little mention in the press, but Stratfor was all over it.
One of the main things the media tends to miss when events like this take place is that little known, insignificant thingy I like to call context. Stratfor brings an ample dose of this:
The United States has treated the Iran crisis as something that will be handled on an American timeline. The way that the Obama administration handled the Afghanistan strategy review suggests it assumes that Washington controls the tempo of events sufficiently that it can make decisions carefully, deliberately and with due reflection. If true, that would mean that adversaries like Iran are purely on the defensive, and either have no counter to American moves or cannot counter the United States until after Washington makes its next move.
For Iran, just to accept that premise puts it at an obvious disadvantage. First, Tehran would have to demonstrate that the tempo of events is not simply in American or Israeli hands. Second, Tehran would have to remind the United States and Israel that Iran has options that it might use regardless of whether the United States chooses sanctions or war. Most important, Iran must show that whatever these options are, they can occur before the United States acts — that Iran has axes of its own, and may not wait for the U.S. axe to fall.
Again, we see countries that aren’t willing to just acquiesce and do things according to timetables the President and his staff have in their collective heads. When you take a step back and analyze these events, two things seem to be pretty clear to me: 1) Nations like Iran, China, and others have it in their minds that the President (perhaps even the Presidency) are vulnerable in a way they might want to try and exploit. Like a quarterback and an offensive line that has a weakness you notice on film, it seems like the Chinese and Iranians are calling audibles to test how the President will react and 2) China, in particular, feel like this is their moment to take the lead on the world stage. The fact that China has been the biggest purchaser of our Treasuries, and yet we’ve thrown the book at them on currency and trade issues surely have *nothing* to do with how they’re dealing with us right now. *sarcasm off*
Bottom line is, our President and his staff are going to have to find a better approach to working with the rest of the world in general, and the BRIC countries in particular. Because right now, the BRICs are developing, China and India have real population growth (while ours is getting older and declining), and as a result they seem to have the secular “winds” to their backs, giving them momentum. As for the rest of the world, like places in Iran and Afghanistan, some out of the box thinking and policy responses need to be adapted and they need to be done quicker. We can’t always assume we’ll have 6 months of deliberations, trial balloon leaks to the press, etc. to form a policy response. And policy shouldn’t be shaped through press leaks either. I have a real problem with someone thinking good policy is borne out of reactions to ideas that get leaked to the media. At best, it’s poor planning. At worst, it’s policy by pandering.
Or else, like a quarterback who has happy feet after being repeatedly hurried, harassed, and sacked, we’ll have a President and staff that are completely out of sync and have no idea what to do or how they’re going to do it.