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Obama’s Cognitive Inflexibility

Writing in the American Interest, the scholar Walter Russell Mead–who voted for Barack Obama in 2008–offered a withering assessment of the Obama foreign policy, saying

few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy. … Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.

Professor Mead adds this:

Now, from the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States and its allies (as well as countries like Russia and even China). It is a perfect storm of bad policy intersecting with troubled times to create the gravest threat to U.S. and world stability since the end of the Cold War.

And this:

So here, alas, is where we now stand six years into the Age of Obama: The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next… he must certainly ask himself some tough questions about why so many of his most cherished ideas keep leading him and his country into such ugly places.

You would think so, except that this president appears incapable of serious self-reflection and holding up his most cherished ideas to scrutiny. Mr. Obama’s mind is too inflexible, his ideology too gripping, and his vanity too overwhelming to rethink his assumptions and approach.

This comes despite the president’s self-conceit. “I’m not a particularly ideological person,” Obama is quoted as saying in a recent profile in the New Yorker. Elsewhere he assures us he’s “not a purist” and “I’m pretty pragmatic.” He added, “I do think one of my strengths is temperament. I am comfortable with complexity.”

That’s actually not true. What Mr. Obama is missing is what neuroscientists call cognitive flexibility. What the president suffers from, on the other hand, is rigidity, difficulty in adapting to changing environments and circumstances. He can do it now and then, but it’s usually late, slow, and insufficient. And when everyone else sees his policies in collapse, Mr. Obama seems unable to fully process things, to see reality for what it is. He reverts to his mental habits, which include blaming the outside world for his failures. That may be soothing to him, but it is tiresome to the rest of us.

Meanwhile, the world burns.



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