President Barack Obama: Not a Blowhard

January 3, 2015

I heard—and then I read—the Steve Inskeep National Public Radio interview with President Barack Obama a few days ago. Here’s the sound and the transcript, and it’s worth your time.

The portion of the interview that caught my particular attention is here, offered with slight editing—and highlighting—for reading ease:

Is there a responsibility by the United States to do more in Libya, having been involved in overthrowing the Gadhafi regime?

I think that the challenge that we’re going to have is a recognition that we are hugely influential; we’re the one indispensable nation. But when it comes to nation-building, when it comes to what is going to be a generational project in a place like Libya or a place like Syria or a place like Iraq, we can help, but we can’t do it for them.

Now, I think the American people recognize that. There are times here in Washington where pundits don’t; they think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned. Where we’re successful is where we see an opportunity, we put resources in, we support those who are trying to do the right thing for their society; and every so often, something breaks.

But I think that one of the things I’ve learned over six years, and it doesn’t always suit the news cycle, is having some strategic patience. You’ll recall that three or four months ago, everybody in Washington was convinced that President Putin was a genius.

And he had outmaneuvered all of us and he had, you know, bullied and, you know, strategized his way into expanding Russian power. And I said at the time we don’t want war with Russia but we can apply steady pressure working with our European partners, being the backbone of an international coalition to oppose Russia’s violation of another country’s sovereignty, and that over time, this would be a strategic mistake by Russia.

And today, you know, I’d sense that at least outside of Russia, maybe some people are thinking what Putin did wasn’t so smart.

Are you just lucky that the price of oil went down and therefore their currency collapsed or is it something that you did?

If you’ll recall, their economy was already contracting and capital was fleeing even before oil collapsed. And part of our rationale in this process was that the only thing keeping that economy afloat was the price of oil.

And if, in fact, we were steady in applying sanction pressure, which we have been, that over time it would make the economy of Russia sufficiently vulnerable that if and when there were disruptions with respect to the price of oil—which, inevitably, there are going to be sometime, if not this year then next year or the year after—that they’d have enormous difficulty managing it.

I say that, not to suggest that we’ve solved Ukraine, but I’m saying that to give an indication that when it comes to the international stage, these problems are big, they’re difficult, they’re messy. But wherever we have been involved over the last several years, I think the outcome has been better because of American leadership.

So here we have a president who knows problems don’t get solved in a day, a week, a month, or even a year. He also appreciates the limitations attendant to American power. He gets process, too, and the fact that not everything can or should be explained, in detail, in public.

Washington and blowhard politicians—windy, confident, certain-beyond-all-reason-that-everything-is-simple—go together like peas and carrots. And, while President Obama credits Americans with the collective intelligence to recognize how hard problems are to solve, I’m not so sure. We did elect the president twice, and by substantial margins, but we elected—well, maybe—the prior regime, and little that is good can be said for too many we choose as our representatives in Congress.

President Putin was windy, confident, and certain-beyond-all-reason-that-everything-is-simple in early 2014. The Russian people were thrilled, and many self-proclaimed American patriots were fawning over President Putin’s toughness. (Here from the Los Angeles Times on March 7 is Conservatives Harbor an Odd Admiration for Vladimir Putin by David Horsey, with a nice overview.) And now? American conservatives have gone silent, in recent days President Putin sounds much less confident, and the Russian people still love their president, and even a cold, poor winter may not change that.

President Obama will be around for another 747 days. He’s certainly shown himself to be disinterested in “phoning it in” for the balance of his time in office. That’s good! Let’s remember, though, that we can elect leaders who know how to solve problems, or we can choose people who make us feel good in the moment. Been there, done that, on the latter, and we should not go there again.

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