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Morning Feature – The Trap of Either/Or Thinking

May 2, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Trap of Either/Or Thinking

Is President Obama a thinker or an actor; a negotiator or a fighter? (More)

When I recently wrote a post about Obama campaigning on going after al Qaeda, I hadn’t read Peter Bergen’s article titled Warrior in Chief. But he makes some of the same arguments I did.

None of this should have surprised anyone who had paid close attention to what Mr. Obama said about the use of force during his presidential campaign. In an August 2007 speech on national security, he put the nation – and the world – on alert: “If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will,” he said, referring to Pervez Musharraf, then president of Pakistan. He added, “I will not hesitate to use military force to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to America.”

While Bergen seems to applaud President Obama’s approach, he makes some of the same mistakes the liberal critics tend to employ by equating the President’s approach to that of his predecessor George Bush. In the end though, he provides us with a clue about why that tends to happen so often.

Still, the American public and chattering classes continue to regard the president as a thinker, not an actor; a negotiator, not a fighter.

What accounts for the strange, persistent cognitive dissonance about this president and his relation to military force? … Whatever the causes, the president has embraced SEAL Team 6 rather than Code Pink, yet many continue to see him as the negotiator in chief rather than the warrior in chief that he actually is.

It comes down to a predilection for either/or thinking. Is President Obama a thinker OR and actor; is he a negotiator OR a fighter; has he embraced SEAL Team 6 OR Code Pink?

What if he is wise enough to embrace both – depending on the situation?

Bergen quotes from President Obama’s speech on accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, where he joined Reinhold Niebuhr in stating that he accepts the world as it is – rather than as we want it to be. In his role as Commander in Chief, that means being prepared to use military force. But Bergen fails to talk about what the President said next.

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths — that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly. Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. “Let us focus,” he said, “on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions.” A gradual evolution of human institutions.

I’m also reminded of the President’s words at his inauguration.

And so, to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations.
[...]
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken – you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
[...]
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

It is only a small mind that cannot envision leadership that incorporates both the fighter AND the negotiator … both the thinker AND the actor. Regardless of whether he always gets it right in every situation, the fact of the matter is that we have a President who embraces both.

Cross-posted from Smartypants
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5 Responses to “Morning Feature – The Trap of Either/Or Thinking”

  1. addisnana Says:

    Thanks for this, smartypants. The both/and approach reflects the complexity of the world today but it makes it hard for people to have accurate bumper stickers. It also means that outraged people should do a better job of getting the whole picture before they fly off the handle.

  2. NCrissieB Says:

    Thank you for this excellent analysis, Smartypants. Most of us prefer simple either/or stories, and simple either/or choices. Alas, Realworldia rarely cooperates. Those simple stories inevitably leave out important details, and simple choices usually don’t fit except in specific situations.

    Rebuttals to your essay usually invoke the slippery slope: if you say “Yes” in This Situation, then you have to say “Yes” in Every Situation and that leads inevitably to Horrible Outcome At Bottom Of Slippery Slope. But that argument holds water only if you think people can’t (or won’t) make principled distinctions and reasonable decisions based on specific circumstances.

    Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  3. winterbanyan Says:

    Thanks so much, Smartypants. You make a really good point here. We do not have an either-or leader and that seems to have a lot of folks confused because Obama refuses to be pigeon-holed. A multi-faceted and multi-talented man, he seeks the best action and solution for each problem, not a blanket approach to everything.

    After 8 years of “The Decider,” I’m actually enjoying watching a very gifted man adjust strategy to meet actual need and goals. Four more years of this and many of us may advance beyond slogans to actually thinking. ;)

  4. Gardener Says:

    Good job! Thank you!

  5. LI Mike Says:

    I see this in the domestic arena, too. Just as people counseled him not go after bin Laden, advisors said don’t do health insurance.