Pundit Wire

Ambivalence Ambush

The White HouseI admit it.

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.

Ambivalence.

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.”

Really.

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? PunditWire Initials


Bob Lehrman 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.

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  • Noam Neusner

    I’m with you that armchair psychoanalysis of presidents is always a risky affair – I think you judge the man by his deeds and expressed thoughts… so I’m with you on that.

    But you’re arguing your case on the extreme margins – a good debater’s technique, but not relevant here. We’re not talking about “don’t think, act” vs “think a lot about difficult choices and go slow” – which a lot of liberals think is the difference between Bush and Obama. I think we’re talking about whether the president is equal to the office’s demands, and whether his preferred mode of making decisions – deliberate, analytical, measured – is appropriate for the case of war.

    In that sense, armchair psychoanalysis is unnecessary in this case: Obama is most clearly ambivalent about the war in Afghanistan – based on Woodward’s reporting alone, one has the picture of a Commander in Chief who is unwilling to surrender now, but who wants to get the heck out as soon as possible. That is a view most Americans share. The problem is that by expressing it so openly and in the policy process, Obama may well be guaranteeing that the expenditure of “blood and treasure,” as he would put it, will be for naught. To be blunt: I supported Obama on the surge last year, but now I’m wondering whether he really cares whether we achieve the objective of a stable state, a Westward-leaning state, a state that does not provide sanctuary to terrorists, in Afghanistan. His ambivalence on this count is not imagined, it’s there in his speeches, and his reported private discussions, and in his actions. By comparison to Bush (and let me correct the record – there was no ambivalence in Bush about the goal in Iraq, nor the willingness to give up EVERYTHING else to achieve it), Obama seems to be parsing policy to minimize his personal political losses. He is reported to have rejected one military solution because, as he put it, he would “lose” the Democratic Party. If I lost my son this week in Afghanistan, and the president cared to pay me a visit at home, I would let him have it – on that quote alone. And that’s the result of ambivalence.

    Again, it is not irrational for Obama to react this way – it’s a lousy situation. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But he ran for the office, and he’s the commander in chief. And when we lose a few dozen young men every week over there, and our president is not determined to make sure those lives weren’t lost in vain (which, in the end, would be the case if we don’t emerge victorious), I think it is a very fair criticism of the man who holds the office. If he doesn’t desire victory, above all other things, than why send men into peril? Ambivalence in this case is not the flaw of weighing the good against the bad. It’s the flaw of doing the minimum to assure a good outcome, so as to minimize the risks of a bad one to one’s personal reputation and power. Not exactly a study of profiles in courage.

  • thisvalley

    Interesting discussion!

    If the goal in Afghanistan is to have a Westward-leaning state that will serve American interests, I suppose I would expect a certain degree of decisiveness from Obama with his strategy. But, as Mr. Neusner points out, that doesn't seem to be his goal. Rather, withdrawing from Afghanistan without setting up the Taliban for a takeover looks to be the endgame.

    So, within the context of that goal, and having to weigh the moving parts that could be the key (a peace deal between India and Pakistan, dismantling the Taliban at the cost of American lives, etc) ambivalence should be expected.

  • Bob Lehrman

    This is why this site is exciting — not just because of what we can write, but the discussion it prompts. Four points, Noam:

    1. I agree that the difference is not “Don’t think, act” v. “Think a lot about difficult choices and go slow.” A lot of people in the Bush administration did think — Paul Wolfowitz, for example, and Colin Powell. But I don’t see evidence that Bush thought enough, by not making up his mind till he exposed himself to different views, heard open debate, and intensively read more than partisan memos. When a President is deciding on an invasion he has to do that. If one of us killed someone on the street it wouldn’t be enough to say “I thought he might have had a weapon.” We have to have evidence of the imminent threat beyond a reasonable doubt. When a President is going to make a decision to kill a few hundred thousand people, doesn’t he have the same responsibility to do his due diligence? There was never anything like that certainty with Iraq. So “don’t think – act?” I’d say it was more like “Don’t think enough – act.”

    And I don’t think Obama’s view is “go slow.” There’s just no evidence that he believes massive action is appropriate. It’s more, “go with appropriate caution.” Do I think his approach — in your words, “deliberate, analytical, measured,” is appropriate? Would you rather he didn’t deliberate, analyze, and measure? I can’t believe you feel that way unless there’s a crisis and the action beyond debate.

    So I think the difference between Bush and Obama (the two individuals, not people in their administrations) was really, “Don’t think enough, act,” v. “think a lot about difficult choices, pick the one you think is right, then act.” What’s wrong with that?

    And when you say Obama shouldn’t have “expressed it openly and in the policy process,” do you mean he should have kept his views to himself? I don’t think you can have debate within an administration and do that — and in a decade where everybody leaks, there’s no way to keep those views from reaching a Woodward. That’s just one of the penalties of doing due diligence, but necessary.

    2. On the “lose the Democrats” remark. I have almost no doubt that Obama said that. But first, a reporter simply can’t use a remark like that when the source is one of Obama’s enemies. Why? Because you can’t depend on Lindsay Graham to report it accurately or give context – or even understand when Obama was making a joke or not. Does that ever happen? Yes. One example, unfortunately: Obama. I forget the exact remark but in 2008 McCain made a self-deprecating joke about himself; Obama chose to quote it seriously as evidence McCain was “out of touch.” People in politics do that.

    But there’s a second point about that remark. Let’s say Obama did say that seriously. He’s right — and not because the Dems are his team — the cheap political reasons. It’s because he can’t lose the entire Democratic Party and accomplish his goals. If he did — in the House, for example — he wouldn’t be able to get a surge or anything else through. And a massive escalation would have done that, making action in Afghanistan and all his other goals impossible. Presidents often take the political landscape into account when they’re waging a war. They need to.

    3. This is the biggest disagreement we have. You ask, “if he doesn’t desire victory above all other things, than why send men into peril?

    When it comes to Afghanistan why should Obama necessarily desire victory over “all” things? We’re talking about the dim possibility of creating a stable government in a small, far away country, not annihilation of the planet or even fighting terror. Like lots of presidents, he’s willing to risk a lot — thousands of American casualties and $500 billion isn’t nothing — but not everything. Like Kennedy, who risked a little in Bay of Pigs then cut his losses. Like Johnson, and Nixon who set limits on what they were willing to risk for Vietnam, like George HW Bush who set limits on what he would do in the first Gulf War, and like your boss, who could have reacted a lot more massively than he did in Iraq — or Afghanistan. Fareed Zakaria makes something like that point in today’s’ column, where he mention’s Krauthammer. Do you really think winning this war is so unquestionably worth placing above “all other things?” That does depress me. Look, I don’t think Afghanistan is worth fighting. I would have been on the Biden side. But I can see a case for the Obama view — and even the McChrystal view. What makes you so certain — so unambivilant — about Afghanistan?

    4. Finally, the one comment you made I think steps over the line of thoughtfulness; that he was minimizing “the risks of a bad (outcome) to one’s personal reputation and power … not exactly a study of profiles in courage.” Since I write novels I have no doubt that Obama, like all flawed human beings, selfishly thinks about his personal reputation, and he needs to worry about his diminished power for other important goals. But to characterize those worries as influencing his decision about Afghanistan that way? That’s just an assertion on your part. What seems a more likely version of what Obama thought is this: “Since victory in Afghanistan is so uncertain, and stability in our allies there unlikely — and even if we achieve that, not critical to the war on terror –, and since my decision results in the horrible deaths and dismemberment of thousands of people, what’s worth doing? Let’s try a middle course for two years, give myself an option to continue if it looks like we’re doing something worth the enormous sacrifice, and evaluate then. And let me not make the mistake of desiring “victory above all other things,” which has so often caused so much suffering around the world.”

    I don’t agree with Obama’s decision, as I’ve already said.. And I don’t think his enormous personal investment in weighing options and (relative) candor in discussing it, is courageous. Just responsible.

  • http://www.MikeLongOnline.com Mike Long

    I agree that psychoanalysis from a distance, especially of Presidents, is a fool’s errand. It is a signal that the author has reached the limits of his own reason and now needs to cast aspersions, but is desperate for a patina of intellectualism to cover it.

    I think Gerson and Krauthammer are guilty of using the word “ambivalent” as it is used in common parlance — that is, incorrectly — as a replacement for the phrase “insufficiently passionate about.” Here’s Gerson, closing: “Our enemy is patient and determined. Our president, by his own account, is neither.” (W. Post, 9/24/10). That’s the whole column in 14 words.

    G & K have their faults (well, G does — K, not so much, heh) but they’re not doing armchair psychoanalysis here, not at all.

  • jim jaffe

    the problem with presidential psychoanalysis is that no one’s ever matched the mark set by Freud, who’s tough to match in terms of analytic technique, and Stimson Bullitt in their book about Wilson. They’re every bit as negative as Beck on Wilson, but come at it from a very different perspective.

  • Bob Lehrman

    This is why this site is exciting — not just because of what we can write, but the discussion it prompts. Four points, Noam:

    1. I agree that the difference is not “Don’t think, act” v. “Think a lot about difficult choices and go slow.” A lot of people in the Bush administration did think — Paul Wolfowitz, for example, and Colin Powell. But I don’t see evidence that Bush thought enough, by not making up his mind till he exposed himself to different views, heard open debate, and intensively read more than partisan memos. When a President is deciding on an invasion he has to do that. If one of us killed someone on the street it wouldn’t be enough to say “I thought he might have had a weapon.” We have to have evidence of the imminent threat beyond a reasonable doubt. When a President is going to make a decision to kill a few hundred thousand people, doesn’t he have the same responsibility to do his due diligence? There was never anything like that certainty with Iraq. So “don’t think – act?” I’d say it was more like “Don’t think enough – act.”
    And I don’t think Obama’s view is “go slow.” There’s just no evidence that he believes massive action is appropriate. It’s more, “go with appropriate caution.” Do I think his approach — in your words, “deliberate, analytical, measured,” is appropriate? Would you rather he didn’t deliberate, analyze, and measure? I can’t believe you feel that way unless there’s a crisis and the action beyond debate.
    So I think the difference between Bush and Obama (the two individuals, not people in their administrations) was really, “Don’t think enough, act,” v. “think a lot about difficult choices, pick the one you think is right, then act.” What’s wrong with that?
    And when you say Obama shouldn’t have “expressed it openly and in the policy process,” do you mean he should have kept his views to himself? I don’t think you can have debate within an administration and do that — and in a decade where everybody leaks, there’s no way to keep those views from reaching a Woodward. That’s just one of the penalties of doing due diligence, but necessary.

    2. On the “lose the Democrats” remark. I have almost no doubt that Obama said that. But first, a reporter simply can’t use a remark like that when the source is one of Obama’s enemies. Why? Because you can’t depend on Lindsay Graham to report it accurately or give context – or even understand when Obama was making a joke or not. Does that ever happen? Yes. One example, unfortunately: Obama. I forget the exact remark but in 2008 McCain made a self-deprecating joke about himself; Obama chose to quote it seriously as evidence McCain was “out of touch.” People in politics do that.

  • Bob Lehrman

    But there’s a second point about that remark. Let’s say Obama did say that seriously. He’s right — and not because the Dems are his team — the cheap political reasons. It’s because he can’t lose the entire Democratic Party and accomplish his goals. If he did — in the House, for example — he wouldn’t be able to get a surge or anything else through. And a massive escalation would have done that, making action in Afghanistan and all his other goals impossible. Presidents often take the political landscape into account when they’re waging a war. They need to.
    3. This is the biggest disagreement we have. You ask, “if he doesn’t desire victory above all other things, than why send men into peril?
    When it comes to Afghanistan why should Obama necessarily desire victory over “all” things? We’re talking about the dim possibility of creating a stable government in a small, far away country, not annihilation of the planet or even fighting terror. Like lots of presidents, he’s willing to risk a lot — thousands of American casualties and $500 billion isn’t nothing — but not everything. Like Kennedy, who risked a little in Bay of Pigs then cut his losses. Like Johnson, and Nixon who set limits on what they were willing to risk for Vietnam, like George HW Bush who set limits on what he would do in the first Gulf War, and like your boss, who could have reacted a lot more massively than he did in Iraq — or Afghanistan. Fareed Zakaria makes something like that point in today’s’ column, where he mention’s Krauthammer. Do you really think winning this war is so unquestionably worth placing above “all other things?” That does depress me. Look, I don’t think Afghanistan is worth fighting. I would have been on the Biden side. But I can see a case for the Obama view — and even the McChrystal view. What makes you so certain — so unambivilant — about Afghanistan?
    4. Finally, the one comment you made I think steps over the line of thoughtfulness; that he was minimizing “the risks of a bad (outcome) to one’s personal reputation and power … not exactly a study of profiles in courage.” Since I write novels I have no doubt that Obama, like all flawed human beings, selfishly thinks about his personal reputation, and he needs to worry about his diminished power for other important goals. But to characterize those worries as influencing his decision about Afghanistan that way? That’s just an assertion on your part. What seems a more likely version of what Obama thought is this: “Since victory in Afghanistan is so uncertain, and stability in our allies there unlikely — and even if we achieve that, not critical to the war on terror –, and since my decision results in the horrible deaths and dismemberment of thousands of people, what’s worth doing? Let’s try a middle course for two years, give myself an option to continue if it looks like we’re doing something worth the enormous sacrifice, and evaluate then. And let me not make the mistake of desiring “victory above all other things,” which has so often caused so much suffering around the world.”
    I don’t agree with Obama’s decision, as I’ve already said.. And I don’t think his enormous personal investment in weighing options and (relative) candor in discussing it, is courageous. Just responsible.

  • Mike Long

    I agree that psychoanalysis from a distance, especially of Presidents, is a fool’s errand. It is a signal that the author has reached the limits of his own reason and now needs to cast aspersions, but is desperate for a patina of intellectualism to cover it.

    I think Gerson and Krauthammer are guilty of using the word “ambivalent” as it is used in common parlance — that is, incorrectly — as a replacement for the phrase “insufficiently passionate about.” Here’s Gerson, closing: “Our enemy is patient and determined. Our president, by his own account, is neither.” (W. Post, 9/24/10). That’s the whole column in 14 words.

    G & K have their faults (well, G does — K, not so much, heh) but they’re not doing armchair psychoanalysis here, not at all.

  • Jim Jaffe

    the problem with presidential psychoanalysis is that no one’s ever matched the mark set by Freud, who’s tough to match in terms of analytic technique, and Stimson Bullitt in their book about Wilson. They’re every bit as negative as Beck on Wilson, but come at it from a very different perspective.

  • Clementine

    Jim Jaffe please note that Sigmund Freud and "William C." Bullitt wrote THOMAS WOODROW WILSON, A PSYCHOLOGICAL STUDY, not the late "Stimson" Bullitt. (Stimson Bullitt wrote TO BE A POLITICIAN.) My understanding is that Freud never actually analyzed Pres. Wilson, but based his study on heresay, mainly Bill Bullitt's – some considered flawed.