Monday, May 09, 2011

Worshipping success

Like almost all Americans, I am very glad that U.S. forces were able to locate and kill bin Laden.  I'm glad that Obama chose to send in commandos, rather than obliterate the compound with bombs.  I believe that the president acted and planned wisely. I hope he gets a lasting boost in approval ratings, and that he gets reelected.

But I am really getting success of the success narrative that reads this event as an ultimate expression of Obama's character -- along with the obligatory foil, the failed attempted rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran as an expression of Jimmy Carter's ultimate leadership.  Grant that planning meticulously, and in particular adding extra helicopters, boosted the odds for success in this case. Note, as Obama said on 60 Minutes, that the capabilities of the U.S. military in operations of this kind are far beyond what they were "20 or 30 years years ago."  Note too that as it turned out, this operation had to be orders of magnitude simpler than rescuing 52 hostages would have been.

No one will ever be able to calculate the odds that this mission might have failed, and that Operation Eagle Claw might have succeeded -- with neither man's leadership qualities being one iota different from what they are.  But I doubt they are negligible.  And if they are negligible -- if Eagle Claw was beyond U.S. capabilities at that time -- that fact would be a lot more obvious after the event than before.

That doesn't mean that Obama is not a far more effective president on multiple fronts than Carter was. And
there may be something to the Niebuhrian notion* that presidents make their own luck.  Perhaps in most presidencies, as in most long poker games, the luck evens out. But not always. Just as a long-term investor can get crushed at retirement time by an intense bear market, perception of a presidential performance can be eroded to defeat levels by events beyond his control. Exhibit A in recent times is Bush Sr., who I think got the big things right -- deficit reduction, Desert Storm, relations with the crumbling Soviet Union, beginnings of a peace dividend -- but was defeated by recession at the tail end of twelve years of Republican rule. 

* I will cop to relying on quotes here -- I have not read Niebuhr.

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