Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Without Obama, could Twitter save us?

There are very few retired presidents we miss immediately; some it takes forever. I’m expecting to miss Barack Obama the morning of January 23, 2017. Before we get emotional, however, we have time for an adult conversation about how we’ll get along without him.

Post-Obama Washington will only be less dangerous if more questions and points of view, not fewer, have influence on its decisions. Fine-grained decision-making’s true threat is the pack. Weaken the pack and we’ll be safer. Twitter and its intrusive companions are starting to do just that and in doing so are serving deliberative democracy.

First, however, we must be adult about our problem.

(Please accept “our” from a Canadian writer as shorthand for: equally interested and ready to offer opinions and live with the North American consequences but not permitted yet by Canadian delicacy to assume the responsibility American citizens must exercise every four years.)

There will not be a candidate for president in 2016 that will solve our problem for us. The next president can’t be another second-term Barack Obama already tested by the reckless temptations of the most powerful office in the world. Retired Cabinet Secretaries can write diaries but only experience vicariously the weight of office. Most important, there’s no praetorian guard of public servants, Pentagon pensioners and print pundits that we can count on to stop the next president from doing stupid stuff.

Washington’s “strategic thinkers” can’t be trusted not because they’re cowed by extremists or Gallop and Pew reports on the temperature of the people, their dread that Canadians and the French will decide that the president of the United States of America can’t play Supremo anymore, but because they stampede like us.

Snooty whining about no-nothing populism is a dodge.

Overwhelmingly, Americans delegate world affairs to those trained in abstractions, who use their passports frequently. They don’t seek out pollsters or hold an up-to-date portfolio of geopolitical ambitions. They’re not itching for action, weary or bored with the world. The people watch the news, they get upset, but they don’t play with fire.  

On the other hand, Washington’s “strategic thinkers” are not at all intimidated by danger; otherwise, they’d stay at the lowliest rungs of their respective greasy poles. They’re actually attracted to trouble, because in trouble, power is truly manifest. They mill about the White House and adjacent media studios as children on Oscar night.

They want, if only once in their professional lives, to feel the thrill of being on the side of shock and awe. Their smooth minds race, just like ours, when serious trouble is within reach — and that brings me directly to my case for Twitter and its various manifestations.

Temperamentally, the gray network of Washington and the social network of the Internet are equally human and worthy of attention.

A tweet and an obsequious interview with Ralf Blitzer or a backgrounder for the New York Times are often one in the same — both are making it up as they go along.

Here’s an instructive example of long-form persuasion by a “strategic thinker” in the long-form reader’s national paper. In the buildup for possibly another Middle East war, the NYT’s White House Memo saw fit to circulate this bon mot:

“But Mr. Obama’s determination to move deliberately and line up support from allies before confronting threats means that he has sometimes appeared to be a spectator to events outside his control.

“‘Caution is often an excellent quality,’ [NATO’s former top commander and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy] James G. Stavridis said. ‘But in this case it may be a bit of a luxury.’ He noted that the challenges presented by ISIS and Russia appear to be developing faster than the administration’s response.”

The most powerful superpower in human history doesn’t have the luxury to take its time, to weigh all its options before it leaps? What’s the difference between that shallow nonsense and the shallow “dung heap” populating too much of Twitter?

Of course, much on Twitter is fevered. No one, fortunately, has any illusions about that or believes that the medium has fully evolved. Twitter, Facebook and blogs, however, already offer every bit as much space for careful analysis and dissent, in the midst of a Washington crisis, than those journals of opinion that far too long have dominated the solemn word game that drives Washington.

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