Obama does not want to become known as "The Great Ditherer"

I've got some real serious advice for my friends in the Obama administration: act quickly or the "dithering thing" is about to become this president's "vision thing."

For those of you who are too young to remember -- and I know this blog skews toward a younger, hipper crowd than the rest of FP's more staid, respectable, and credible offerings -- the "vision thing" became the brutal short-hand describing George H.W. Bush's supposed lack of vision. It was one of those terms that was so memorable that it slipped into those every day water cooler conversations and became an unshakable part of the conventional wisdom that helped make Bush 41 a one-term president.

We've seen the phenomenon many times before. Sometimes, the phrase is self-inflicted as was "vision thing" or "I am not a crook." Sometimes it is an image: John Kerry windsurfing, Michael Dukakis with silly helmet on. And as Gerald Ford and all these others discovered, the truth is not a defense. You can be, as Ford was, the best athlete ever to be president of the United States, a football All-American, and stumble down a flight of stairs or two and you are a clumsy doofus for the rest of your life.

Sticky phrases tied to potent concepts can undo a president or public figure as much as any action they take. Whether it's a reputation for micro-management or skirt-chasing, once one of these nutshell descriptions sticks, it never goes away.

The alarms started going off in my head regarding this when I saw Tom Ricks's post on the FP site earlier this week which was headlined "The Ditherer in Chief." In it, Ricks laid out with typical economy and insight, why Obama's "dithering" on settling on a strategy in Afghanistan or really moving forward in Iraq is a kind of unsettling counterpoint to George Bush's "panic" in the wake of 9/11. Ricks, who I believe readers should take very seriously on matters such as this, said that as a result of the president's seeming lack of decisiveness on these critical issues, he (Ricks) had become, for the first time, worried about Obama's foreign policy.

Ricks concluded by saying that if he were forced to choose, he'd take dithering over panic. But it was clear, he has become a member of an ever growing group, many of whom are extremely pro-Obama Democrats, that have grown impatient with the president's handling of those aspects of his presidency that have life and death implications for U.S. troops.

I should note, I am not personally of the same view. Provided the administration reaches a decision on its going forward strategy in Afghanistan in the next several weeks as Secretary Gates indicated this weekend that it would, I welcome the systematic assessment and reassessment of our situation, the reaching out for multiple views including those of our allies (as reflected in the comments of NATO Secretary General Rasmussen yesterday), and the recognition that it is worth the delay to come to the best possible solution. We've seen where impulse and dogma-driven reflex will get us. We should welcome the impulse to interject thought into the process as we should the apparent willingness to puncture groupthink by seeking divergent perspectives.

To me the issue is whether the decision is the right one or not. Which, as readers of this blog know, in my view is a much narrower mission in Afghanistan, a focus on getting a tolerable, semi-effective government in place in Kabul, and then moving more toward a counter-terror strategy that involves fewer locally-based forces and more over-the-horizon interventions be they drones or ship-based special forces operations as recently took place in Somalia.

But as mentioned above, the facts won't matter to opponents of the president or to the average voter who has bandwidth for little more than a twitter-length description of the president, a string of bits of conventional wisdom that constitute what passes for the total persona of the commander-in-chief.

Professor Obama and community-organizer-in-chief Obama are both compelling identities to many Democrats (and in many ways welcome ones). But they simply don't cut it on pressing national security issues.  The expectations of the public and the defense community which people like Tom Ricks knows so well may be conventional but they are unshakable. Leaders must lead. Decisions must be crisp. The human stakes are in fact undeniably high. Days and weeks do matter...and commanders need to show they "get it." And over all, you need to convey a sense that you have that "vision thing", a sense of where you want to go and that it doesn't take a seminar to reach every decision.

Part of the problem for Obama is that he started out headed in the wrong direction in Afghanistan and he needs to change course. There is no easy way to do it. And it may sting politically. But ultimately, courage carries a lot of weight and is one of the antidotes to the dithering argument.  Another potential antidote is offering up different, better stories and images. I am not sure why the Somalia operation did not get more play. It seems to have been a great example of good leadership and the U.S. military effectively doing their very tough job. Identifying the president more closely with the successes of the military will help (assuming they are real and he is truly behind them ... "Mission Accomplished" moments are precisely the kind this president ... and all presidents ... need to avoid.) And of course, the best potential antidote is more decisiveness whenever it is responsible.

It is not too late to keep this label from sticking. But it's getting there. 


David Rothkopf

The day of the locos...

Yes, "Morning Joe" thought the hot story out of the Venice Film Festival was the footage of an exuberant gay Italian man stripping down and begging for a kiss from George Clooney. But they missed the bigger story. Perhaps they were too dazzled by the flashbulbs or their reporter was unable to make his way through the fawning, screeching crowds of fans. But there, upstaging the canals and the pigeons of St. Marks was Hollywood's newest hunk, Hugo Chavez. And just like Clooney, he had his retinue of crazed admirers. In Chavez's case however, the heavy-breathing was coming from director Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote his latest labor of love, a valentine to Chavez called "South of the Border." 

And you thought George W. Bush was Yale's most embarrassing graduate... 

This new film -- which is not, incidentally, named after the South Carolina roadside tourist trap of the same name -- builds on Stone's unwitting reputation as a master of historical fiction. Whereas some filmmakers are known for their camera work or story-telling, Stone is best known for his inability to separate fact from fairy-tale. First, came JFK, which provided the same view of the Kennedy assassination you would get after huffing glue while watching the Zapruder film. Other fantasies made their way into his movies on Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Appropriately, therefore, the best of all summaries of his worldview came in the description of his "single plane theory" of the 9/11 attacks as reported by the Onion. (Given Stone's track record, the fact that it is completely made up is precisely the reason it should be treated as the truth.) 

Here's an excerpt of Time's review of the film:

Every step of the way, Stone is by, and on, on the President's side. He raises no tough issues, some of which are summarized in Amnesty International's 2009 report on Venezuela: "Attacks on journalists were widespread. Human-rights defenders continued to suffer harassment. Prison conditions provoked hunger strikes in facilities across the country." Referring to the 2006 election in which Chávez won a third term, Stone tells viewers that "90% of the media was opposed to him," and yet he prevailed. "There is a lesson to be learned," Stone says. Yes: support the man in power, or your newspaper, radio station or TV network may be in jeopardy.

According to Variety, Stone said, ""You can't get a fair hearing for Chavez. It's an outrageous caricature they've drawn of him in the Western press."

Yes. Outrageous. Let's just take a few items of Chavez news from around the world that have crossed the wires in just the past couple days and draw our own conclusions, shall we?

Let's start with the mildly comic. In Belarus, Chavez met with President Alexander Lukashenko (the White Russian version of a caudillo). There, according to AFP:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday boasted of his good ties with fellow Western critic Belarus, even suggesting the two countries could become part of a Soviet-style union.

Chavez held talks in Minsk with his Belarussian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko marked by a chummy bonhomie that saw the pair also propose they travel the length and breadth of Venezuela in the near future.

"We need to create a new union of republics," Chavez told Lukashenko, according to a statement from the Belarussian presidency.

Today, in moves that are not so laughable, Chavez will meet with Russian officials where he is expected to discuss further arms sales, military cooperation and energy deals.

More ominously, today Chavez also stirred up a torrent of controversy when he accused Israel of genocide.

The question is not whether the Israelis want to exterminate the Palestinians. They're doing it openly," Chavez said in an interview with Le Figaro published on Wednesday.

The Venezuelan president, who has just completed a tour of Middle Eastern and Arab countries, brushed aside Israeli assertions that its attack on Gaza was a response to rocket fire from Islamist group Hamas which rules the coastal enclave.

"What was it if not genocide? ... The Israelis were looking for an excuse to exterminate the Palestinians," Chavez said, adding that sanctions should have been slapped on Israel.

While perhaps Stone would agree with these rants (and while he might disagree with Elliott Abrams's excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post taking former President Jimmy Carter to task for his similarly one-sided, overstated and distorted views), his past record of using and abusing the truth like other directors do starlets suggests that he might not dig far enough into the facts to recognize that his film's hero is deeply in bed with some of the very worst of the Middle East's bad actors. 

Fortunately for the rest of us, there is the very thoughtful and profoundly disturbing column by Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal detailing a growing case that Chavez and the Iranians are up to the worst kind of no good in this neighborhood. (Connecting the dots between Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Chavez's views is very easy when you do a little more research than Stone did.) Morgenthau writes:

Why is Hugo Chávez willing to open up his country to a foreign nation with little shared history or culture? I believe it is because his regime is bent on becoming a regional power, and is fanatical in its approach to dealing with the U.S. The diplomatic overture of President Barack Obama in shaking Mr. Chávez's hand in April at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago is no reason to assume the threat has diminished. In fact, with the groundwork laid years ago, we are entering a period where the fruits of the Iran-Venezuela bond will begin to ripen.

That means two of the world's most dangerous regimes, the self-described "axis of unity," will be acting together in our backyard on the development of nuclear and missile technology. And it seems that terrorist groups have found the perfect operating ground for training and planning, and financing their activities through narco-trafficking.

His theory is supported not only by the evidence outlined in his article but also by statements earlier this week that Chavez intended to provide oil to Iran in the event the world's leading powers attempt to impose an embargo on the country should it continue to pursue its nuclear weapons ambitions. The Iranian intransigence could put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Tehran but with suppliers like Chavez -- a fact which could delay his getting a star on Hollywood's walk of fame indefinitely as well as causing a real foreign policy headache for the Obama administration.

However, there are always two sides to every story (at least ... around the dinner table in my house growing up there were typically many more than that). And as dark as is the picture of Iranian-Venezuelan cooperation painted by Morgenthau there will always be someone who sees the happy Hollywood ending to such collaborations. And of course, for that we can always turn to Stone. Because according to The Guardian, Chavez's Leni Riefenstahl is currently planning as an encore "an interview film with Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Update: We just heard from Willie Geist of "Morning Joe" who noted that they did their takedown of Chavez and Stone earlier this week. I should have known that Geist, who has one of television's best B.S. detectors and, even rarer, a great sense of humor, would never have let this story slip through the cracks.