It wasn’t just people like Howard Dean who became armchair psychologists in trying to fathom George Bush’s invasion of Iraq (“Saddam Hussein tried to assassinate his [father]. Maybe this was revenge.”). I did that, too.
But it was stupid. What relevance was it to the reasons Bush offered? How could you prove it anyway? We thought his views were so loony the only way we could explain them was to peer inside his brain.
Now it’s the Republicans’ turn, and not just from Rush Limbaugh who tries to explain Barack Obama by calling him someone who secretly “hates white people.” There’s a more civil version of Limbaugh: Post columnists Michael Gerson, Bush’s former speechwriter; and former Mondale(!) speechwriter, Charles Krauthammer.
Both examine Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars. They’ve spotted a character flaw in Obama.
Gerson sees a “reluctant warrior,” a president “deeply skeptical about the Afghan War.” He thinks Obama wants to convey “studied, professorial ambivalence.” He asks “Is it possible to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman purposely cultivating such ambiguity?” Krauthammer’s column is similar. He calls it “Declaration of Ambivalence.”
What upsets both writers is not Woodward’s revelation of Obama’s ambivalence but the fact of it. Gerson is explicit: “The largest problem is the president’s own ambivalence.”
First, a definition. Ambivalence means the coexistence of opposing feelings about an idea. Anytime we have to think about an act for a while (“Gee, should we fix the car? There’s plusses and minuses. Gotta think!”) we’re ambivalent about it.
Is Obama ambivalent about the war. Obviously.
But that’s bad? How could a president not feel ambivalent about war—an act that kills so many people, and for which the long-term results are often so fraught with uncertainty?
With Afghanistan, no matter what policy you favor, there are especially daunting reasons for ambivalence: the human cost of a war that’s made refugees of almost 2 million people; a total cost forecast at $500 billion; an Afghan government less willing to fight than our own; enormous opposition by Americans; the precedent of Vietnam and Iraq, where zealous prosecution led us to commit two of the major moral and technical blunders of the last half-century.
Given all that, wouldn’t the real character flaw be having no ambivalence?
Even George Bush wasn’t without ambivalence about Iraq. Impossible? Gerson and Krauthammer might want to read the New York Times article from January 2008. They can find it by Googling the headline: “Bush administration still ambivalent about Iraqi sovereignty.”
And Truman? Anyone reading about him sees that despite his manufactured “Give ’em Hell,” image, historians see him as “ambivalent,” not just about civil rights but the very military buildup that led to Korea.
It’s tempting to think these two columns are deceitful efforts to discredit Obama’s views by attacking his character—rebuttal by psychoanalysis—especially from Krauthammer, who was a distinguished psychiatrist. But both columnists are serious people. More likely they’re just like us Democrats under Bush: completely unable to understand the other side.
That becomes especially likely once we see the bewilderment of Krauthammer’s final rhetorical question. If Obama thinks the war is a mistake, he asks, plaintively, “what is he doing escalating it?”
Why? Let’s go back to the car analogy. Is it a lemon or not? Sometimes you can’t tell. “I’ll okay repairs this time,” you say. “But if it breaks down again—that’s it.” Obama’s giving the war one more chance. I don’t agree with him. I think the war is a lemon. But isn’t his idea more reasonable than saying, “Hell, I’ll keep fixing this thing till I’m broke!”?
Much as they feel constrained to profess certainty in public, we want presidents willing to entertain “opposing views” about war, even if, unlike the kowtowing reporters in the FDR era, a Bob Woodward would be able to find out.. They aren’t deciding about a car. They’re deciding about lives—sometimes millions of them. You want them to deliberate, listen to opposing views, give voice to their skepticism, and even read a book or two. And maybe decide on a middle ground.
“Our enemy is patient and determined,” Gerson says. “Our president … is neither.”
He draws the wrong lesson from Woodward’s book. Obama’s ambivalence demonstrates not a lack of patience but another quality: maturity. Gerson and Krauthammer may think they’ve given us insight into Barack Obama. Really, that Obama’s middle ground approach baffles a Krauthammer shows how far we are from finding common ground. And that provides the real insight: how valuable the Obama approach is.
For if we can’t understand people who share our language, went to the same schools, and even worked in the same building, how certain should we be of our understanding—how unambivalent about our decisions—when it comes to making war halfway around the globe?
Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.