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Wisdom Wedded to Tenacity

As Jennifer has pointed out, David Brooks has penned an interesting column on Afghanistan and President Obama. After interviewing many experts on Afghanistan, he reports:

Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence. But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.

These are of course precisely the qualities that George W. Bush showed during the debate in late 2006 and 2007 about the so-called surge in Iraq. At the time Bush was almost alone in his advocacy. His commending generals, George Casey and John Abizaid, opposed his plan, as did most members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some members of Bush’s own war cabinet. Virtually the entire Democratic party, most of the foreign-policy establishment, and most of the public had turned hard against the war. They were certain the new counterinsurgency plan could not work and shouldn’t be tried.

Despite opposition as fierce and sustained as one can imagine (and far worse than anything President Obama is now experiencing), Bush and a small handful of others — the most important of whom were General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker -– persisted. They displayed raw determination. They fixated on a simple conviction and gripped it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. And they were proved right. In other words, the qualities Bush displayed in wartime are now the qualities Brooks and others (including me) are hoping Obama possesses.

I will add two other thoughts, the first being that tenacity needs to be conjoined to wisdom and right action. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty’s raw determination and enthusiasm in the Dardanelles campaign was a disaster, forced his resignation, and almost ended Winston Churchill’s career. What determines whether something qualifies as impressive tenacity or foolish obstinacy are results, outcomes, successes. And those things are unknowable at the time a decision is being debated and made.

A second related observation is that the virtues we look for in our leaders often shift like a kaleidoscope. The kind of tenacity Brooks praises was absolutely essential for the surge to succeed. But at the time, tenacity was viewed as stubbornness; a visceral and unflinching commitment to principle was seen as dogmatism; raw determination was thought to be a rigid unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances. Top leaders of the GOP came to Bush and urged him to end the Iraq war because of the damage it was doing to his party.

Lincoln and Churchill experienced the same phenomenon during the darkest days of the Civil War and World War II. The qualities that are now widely praised as virtues — the very qualities that helped make Lincoln and Churchill the greatest political leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries — were at the time widely regarded as vices. And very few people stood with them during the moments that mattered most. Tenacity and raw determination are easy when they are garnering applause from the public and the political class; to exhibit them in the face of catcalls and derision is much harder. To hold shape against relentless attacks is evidence of admirable human character. It is a vital trait for wartime leaders to possess. But it is not, by itself, enough.


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