by Austin Bay
September 23, 2014
In a recent column assessing President Barack Obama's judgment (after six years in office), the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens asked, "What does Obama Know?" Stephens brutally concluded that among U.S. presidents, Barack Obama "stands apart is in his combination of ideological rigidity and fathomless ignorance. What does the president know? The simple answer, and maybe the truest, is: not a lot."
Stephens' column addressed the "foundation of knowledge" underpinning the president's analysis of political problems and hence his policy prescriptions. Obama is indeed ideologically rigid; Stephens nails that. Obama is a clinical study in no-give domestic political grandstanding -- and this is where, in my view, Stephens' conclusion that the president is abysmally ignorant is akilter.
Barack Obama knows a great deal about aggressive and electorally successful political activism within the protective confines of the U.S. Constitution. Ever the expert polemicist, Obama knows how to use the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech as a political Swiss Army knife, stabbing Hillary Clinton with a verbal dagger, and then slicing George W. Bush with a sound-bite scalpel. He also knows how to leverage fawning U.S. media outlets, which benefit from perceptually aligning with the self-righteous polemical sentiments he routinely expresses.
Obama has mastered Saul Alinsky politics: a narrow, confined know-how mixing cynical pragmatism, polemical populism and elitist ego that in the U.S. can produce electoral and media success.
Obama, however, does not know zilch about Carl von Clausewitz. The great German strategic theorist (and combat veteran) understood philosophically and viscerally the wicked, non-linear complexity of unbridled passions, mass violence and rational use of capabilities to pursue strategic goals that is the inescapable condition of international affairs in diplomacy and war.
Alinsky godfathered hard-core late 20th- and early 21st-century American leftist politics. His "The Rules for Radicals" lists 12 perception operations for gaining notoriety and then power in a society where the rule of law protects aggressive dissent.
Examples: "RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty." Or, "RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions." Which links to "RULE 12: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions." The leftist propaganda ditty "Bush lied, people died" epitomizes these three Alinsky "rules."
In 2008, Obama rode that Alinskyite ditty into the White House. In 2012, his "Republican war on women" meme did the dirty trick.
Winning a domestic American election is one thing; waging war against any organization or nation, much less a beast like the Islamic State, is something else entirely. Peaceniks may yelp, but war and international crises shape history's judgment of a presidency.
Prior to the presidency, Obama had only been responsible for successful presentation and perception; he never held a job where he was responsible for definitive policy results. He has attempted to translate his expertise in tactical (immediate), short term, buy-time polemics into governance. The result: Tactical, buy-time governance.
Fawning press coverage extended Obama's "buy-time" proviso.
Media fawning continues, but Islamic State video beheadings and Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledgment that defeating the mass murderers may require "boots on the ground" have all but rendered the emperor nude if not naked.
"War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means," Clausewitz wrote. The other means include force and violence and dead bodies. Clausewitz also called war a contest of wills. To successfully fight a war -- to win a war -- requires committed leadership. The Islamic State's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi demonstrates commitment; he cuts off journalists' heads and then shoots Iraqi and Syrian prisoners en masse. His forces have also overrun Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq.
Obama, however, continues to conduct foreign policy and fight his Iraqi war (which he refuses to call a war) as if he were organizing a community in Chicago or running for president in the U.S. Alinsky has always worked so well. Why bother to know anything about Clausewitz?