Thursday, January 23, 2014

Obama's permission structures

Steve Rosen, "a former AIPAC foreign policy chief known for his hawkishness on Iran," gave the Obama administration a backhanded compliment that sheds some interesting light on complaints that "no one fears" Obama.  Regarding AIPAC's heavy-handed backing of the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill that the administration is dead-set against, JTA's Ron Kampeas reports:
“AIPAC puts a premium on bipartisan consensus and maintaining communication with the White House,” said Rosen, who was fired by AIPAC in 2005 after being investigated in a government leak probe, though the resulting charges were dismissed and he later sued AIPAC unsuccessfully for damages.

Rosen noted AIPAC’s forthcoming policy conference in March; such conferences routinely feature a top administration official — the president or  vice president, the secretary of state or defense. At least one of these failing to appear “would be devastating to AIPAC’s image of bipartisanship,” he said.

A way out for the group would be to quietly negotiate a compromise behind the scenes with the White House, Rosen said.

“They don’t want to be seen as backing down,” he said of his former employer, “but the White House is good at helping people backing down without seeming to back down.”
The administration is portrayed here wielding a stick that no one will ever see if all goes according to plan. It's a nice illustration of the administration creating what Obama famously last year called a "permission structure" enabling an adversary (e.g., the House GOP) to cooperate to a degree.

Creating such structures is central to Obama's theory of power.  David Remnick's just-posted outtakes from his long profile of the president in this week's New Yorker demonstrate a couple of instances where the "structure" is quite elaborate. Here is Obama's explanation for the kind of acknowledgements of U.S. missteps that Republicans have caricatured as comprising an "apology tour": apologize for certain historic events out of context, I think, wouldn’t be telling an accurate story. On the other hand, I do think that part of effective diplomacy, part of America maintaining its influence in a world in which we remain the one indispensable power, but in which you’ve got a much more multipolar environment, is for other people to know that we understand their stories as well, and that we can see how they have come to certain conclusions or understandings about their history, their economies, the conflicts they’ve suffered. Because, if they think we understand their frame of reference, then they’re more likely to listen to us and to work with us. 

 “So for me to acknowledge the fact that we were involved in the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Iran is not to pick at an old scab or to do a bunch of Monday-morning quarterbacking. It’s to say to the Iranian people, We understand why you might have some suspicions about us; we’ve got some suspicions about you because you have held our folks hostage and murdered our people and threatened our allies. So, now that we understand each other, can we do business?

“That, I think, is useful and important precisely because we are far and away the most powerful country in the world. And, having lived overseas, the one thing I know is how much the world admires America, but also how much the world thinks America has no clue as to what’s going on outside our borders.”

Later, he added, “Now, if other countries don’t think we see them or know them or understand them, then they may grudgingly coƶperate with us where they have to, because it’s in their self-interest, but, at the margins—where we need them to participate in Iran’s sanctions, or we need them to work with us around a non-proliferation agenda—a population that thinks we hear them, we understand their history, is more likely to support their leaders when they work with us. That’s part of exercising effective power in the world.”
To those culturally attuned to Obama's way of thinking and speaking, riffs like these offer a kind of complexity high. He does nuance -- and notwithstanding all the grumbles about his alleged introversion, I think it's fair to say that he's got not just emotional intelligence but emotional genius. It's what got him where he is. That's not to say that his mode of negotiation or wielding executive power is always effective; there are offsetting weaknesses. These include the flip side of this strength, which Garry Wills dubbed a lifelong impulse toward "omnidirectional placation." That impulse arguably often leads him to offer preemptive concessions that fail to mollify his adversaries.

From Remnick's outtakes a second permission structure, regarding how the U.S. can induce China and India to take on more responsibility in global efforts to combat climate change. Note the multiple layers of calculation (I wish I could take a shorter cut of this response, but how?):
Q.: What leverage do we have?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the good news is the Chinese and Indians understand that [if they develop at the rate the U.S. did, ''we'll be four feet underwater"]. I may have mentioned this to you earlier—the most popular Twitter account in China is the U.S. Embassy’s daily air-quality measurement. When you talk to China experts, they will tell you that the most active, robust civic organizations, and the area where there’s been the loudest complaint about government inaction, alongside corruption, is the issue of the environment. The Chinese understand that if things continue on this pace they’re going to run out of water, and they’re not going to be able to stem the kind of pollution you see in Beijing during the summers, and things are just going to get worse.

So we’ve seen some progress, very modest. Their willingness to work with us on the hydrocarbon reductions that are embodied in the Montreal Protocol, I think, are an example of that. But my goal has been to make sure that the United States can genuinely assert leadership in this issue internationally, that we are considered part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And if we are at the table in that conversation with some credibility, then it gives us the opportunity to challenge and engage the Chinese and the Indians, as long as we take into account the fact that they’ve still got, between the two of them, over a billion people in dire poverty.

And it’s not sufficient for us to just tell them to stop. We’re going to have to give them some help. We’re going to have to take some of our research and development on things like clean-coal technology and be able to export it to them or license it to them. We’re going to have to look at our best practices, or, probably more pertinently, Japanese best practices, on energy efficiency, and figure out how can some of that stuff get written into Chinese and Indian building codes. There’s going to be a process where we help them leapfrog some of the development stages that we went through.

This is why I’m putting a big priority on our carbon action plan here. It’s not because I’m ignorant of the fact that these emerging countries are going to be a bigger problem than us. It’s because it’s very hard for me to get in that conversation if we’re making no effort. And it’s not an answer for us to say, Well, since the Chinese and the Indians are the bigger problem, we might as well not even bother.

It’s also why, though, sometimes I get into arguments with environmentalists on something like carbon capture or natural gas. The notion that not only [can we] duplicate the emissions rates of Sweden, let’s say, but that the Chinese and the Indians can anytime soon, frustrates me. Factually, that’s just not feasible. It’s not correct. And so if we can figure out a carbon-capture mechanism that is sufficiently advanced and works, then we are helping ourselves, because the Chinese and the Indians are going to build some coal plants, and even if we don’t build another coal plant in this country, there are going to be a lot of coal plants around the world that are built. And we have a huge investment in trying to figure out how we can help them do it more cleanly.

Note the multiple steps to winning a measure of Chinese and Indian partnership outlined here: 1) demonstrate we recognize the dilemma they face; 2) demonstrate our own commitment; 3) help them via technology transfer; 4) embrace second-best solutions.  I wouldn't call this "multi-dimensional chess," because it's not adversarial.  But it is multi-level engagement.

Obama also makes a weary and dismissive reference in these outtakes to demands that he wield power like LBJ (and in the print profile, Remnick himself explained that it would be fruitless for Obama to, say, punish Senator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, for voting against closing the "gun show loophole"). It's worth noting in this context that Chris Christie wields power like LBJ. There have been times when I've wished that Obama would take a Christie-an approach to budget negotiations: here are my demands. Call me when you've written a budget bill that meets them.  But whatever you think of Obama's negotiating approach, he does argue convincingly that the schmooze-with-the-opposition line of criticism is nonsense. He has a keen understanding of structural changes in the way the parties operate that have overwhelmed the marginal difference that close personal relations can make.

It's not proved possible for Obama to operate as a post-partisan president.  But the promise to do so was not campaign fluff, either. The impulse to diffuse zero-sum competition with empathic outreach is his defining characteristic.

Obama, intrexovert
Of the tribe of Barack
Liberal Reagan -- not
Where Obama's placation end

1 comment:

  1. Another good post. My question: where's the dividing line between empathy and passive aggression? If empathy is considered by some to be weakness, then isn't passive aggression strength comparable to the power wielded by LBJ? The Syrian civil war, and Obama's (mis)handling of it, is getting a lot of attention, with Obama being harshly criticized by people like Rosen. What everyone is missing is that the potential trigger of a devastating regional sectarian war (Sunnis against the overwhelmingly outnumbered Shiites, outnumbered both in Syria and the middle east) has instead become a war marked by Sunni against Sunni: Sunni conscripts in Assad's army against Sunni rebels and Sunni rebels against Sunni rebels. If this was Obama's strategy for Syria all along, it's an effective strategy if a diabolical strategy. LBJ would be proud.