"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up. When he first set these words to paper in 1936, it's pretty certain that he did not imagine they would one day become the core foreign-policy principle of a 21st-century president. Yet because they have, we have been reminded of another important lesson about first-rate minds, second-rate ones, and minds of every quality: Character trumps intellectual ambivalence every time.
It is no doubt simpler for leaders who see things plainly and without nuance. Indeed, doubt is perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those whose decisions carry great weight. But as we saw in the Iraq war, "slam-dunk" certainty is no guarantee of either success or good judgment. In the early years of George W. Bush's presidency, in my view, a lack of critical second-guessing among policymakers undermined what were the president's fundamentally good intentions.
Barack Obama has been afflicted by the ability to see multiple sides of any issue since he took office. His Afghanistan policy initiative was, until recently, the outstanding example of this characteristic. After a lengthy internal debate, he presented in one speech both the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in that country and the announcement that the United States would be leaving on a certain date. It was the first illustration of what I described at the time as the Groucho Marx approach to foreign policy, referring to the comic icon's signature song, "Hello, I Must Be Going." But we have since seen other examples of Obama's ambivalence -- opposing the Bush administration's abuses of international law, yet violating sovereignty countless times with expanded drone attacks; standing up for civil liberties, yet overseeing the greatest expansion of our intrusive surveillance state ever; pivoting to Asia, but still regularly being drawn back to the Middle East; going to Congress to get approval for action in Syria and then reserving the right to take action on his own.
You might see this kind of vacillation as a sign of confusion rather than a manifestation of a first-rate intelligence. Indeed, it's almost certainly a bit of both. But even when doubts persist, underlying instincts continue to drive policy toward its ultimate outcomes. When Bush saw the Iraq war was going badly, he developed questions and concerns about the policies and pushed aside his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and tuned out his vice president. Not only did he then begin to embrace (and actively manage) better on-the-ground policies, but he oversaw a second-term period in U.S. international relations marked by the Millennium Challenge initiative, improved relations with emerging powers, the introduction of the "light-footprint" tactics later embraced by the Obama administration, and ultimately his politically courageous and, in retrospect, largely masterful handling of the 2008 financial crisis. Gradually, and contrary to the deeply held views of partisans, the better Bush prevailed. Character triumphed over inexperience and wrongheaded views that were too strongly held.
In the case of Obama, he was elected by the American people to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to end the country's reflexive impulse toward war. The voters saw in him the impulse of a peacemaker, and his first actions as president sent a message to the world that the voters' judgment had been correct. His Cairo speech was an olive branch to the Islamic world. His Prague speech on nuclear disarmament addressed the nightmare that has stalked humanity since the last days of World War II. Even the speech he delivered after being awarded his bizarrely premature Nobel Peace Prize captured well the true spirit of a peacemaker.
Of course, Obama saw that peacemaking also involved remaining strong and preserving the national security of the country. And he also knew that were he to appear to neglect these points he would also put himself at political risk. And so whether motivated by simple, sound judgment or some of that and a dollop of political self-interest as well, he also became the man to dial up drones, dial up Stuxnet and cyberattacks, get Osama bin Laden, go after Anwar al-Awlaki, oversee NSA mission creep, attack Libya, and threaten intervention in Syria. But even in these cases he revealed that his fundamental instinct is first to avoid or minimize armed conflict that puts U.S. troops at risk (whether by avoiding it or by choosing to narrow its possible scope).
On some issues, this signature instinct has promoted peaceful outcomes. On others, it has sent a message that may have emboldened our enemies. On some issues, as with his overly expansive drone programs and his decisions to actually promote the expansion of the NSA's intrusive, actually anti-constitutional programs, it seems clear he made the wrong decisions. But it's hard to deny that his overall intentions in these instances lay in the direction voters thought he would take them when he was first elected.