Many journalists were as puzzled by President Obama’s zigzagging on Syria as were their readers or viewers. The words used to describe his changing positions heard most often in both camps were “confused, confusing, muddled.” Detractors described his stance as “incoherent incompetence.” No one offered a compelling view of the forces within the president that might have shaped so perplexing a path his positions took.
That is, until Erica Ariel Fox explained it all to us in “Understanding Obama’s Syria Negotiation – With Himself,” published on the Forbes magazine website on September 4. Ms. Fox, founding partner of Mobius Executive Leadership and lecturer at Harvard Law School, from which she and the president graduated, disposes of the obvious explanations (“he’s too weak to act,” for example) and transports us to a more “subtle level,” from which to illuminate our Obama conundrum. She wants us to understand his “tie-knots-in-your-stomach internal struggle” at the root of his dealing with the “diabolical strategic challenge” he faces on Syria.
I wish I were summarizing Woody Allen from one of his early movies. Ms. Fox is frightfully serious. Because, you see, Obama is trying to focus on a quartet of “inner negotiators” and “broker a deal with them” before he is “ready to make a move” about Syria. And just who are these “inner negotiators” that have the POTUS all tied up in knots?
The first one is his “Inner Dreamer,” the one that gave the speech in Cairo early in his first term and still seeks an opportunity in the Middle East “for political repair, even healing.” Next comes his “Thinker,” the Obama that “sticks to logic and cold facts,” and figures out the implications and consequences of any action.
Third is “Obama’s Inner Lover,” (no, I’m not smoking anything), who is torn between his love for and loyalty to two sets of people, those in Syria and the rest of the world and his fellow Americans. And, finally, the president must heed his “Inner Warrior,” who wants to get things done.
Ms. Fox depicts how these four characters in the O.K. Corral of the president’s mind prepare for the gunfight that will leave one as the last negotiator standing: “Where the Dreamer muses about the future, the Thinker reviews data and forms opinions, and the Lover feels for people and taking care of them, the Warrior wants to seize the plan and get going.”
All of these capitalized inner negotiators “will make their plays to influence him” Ms. Fox writes. She supposes that Obama, as all “great leaders “do, listens to “all of the Big Four” (negotiators) before reaching an agreement inside of himself.”
And that is the psychodrama that has played out in Obama’s mind and the final curtain has not yet come down. We must understand this, rather than become skeptical or critical. She wants more than 300 million Americans to act as the president’s therapists while he allows his Negotiators to reach an agreement, or, as some of us prefer, shoot it out and let the last one alive choose our nation’s destiny.
Now, hotheads among you or those who still think that the likes of Ms. Fox are pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals might ask: how the hell does she “know” all this? Well, she doesn’t. Nothing in the article suggests that she ever interviewed Obama or anyone close to him. That’s why she writes “I believe Obama’s inner Dreamer still longs for this possibility.” (Healing in the Middle East). She has not a clue.
And Ms. Fox has ignored the Fifth and likely most important negotiator, Obama’s Inner Politician. He doesn’t exist in her Alice in Wonderland world. And our president remains, above all things, a politician, concerned with the success and the image that will determine his legacy. But in the end, we should be grateful to Ms. Fox too. She has provided much-needed humor for this topic. Compare her imaginary peek into the mind of Obama with the Syria jokes on Leno.
She’s ready for prime time.
Follow Up: Peter Baker’s article, “Rare View of Policy Pivots by Obama in Syria Confrontation,” on page 1 of the September 12 New York Times, reports the reactions to the president’s shifts by Washington hands. As usual, some see his “pivots” as nimbleness and willingness to take in new information while others view them as feckless and decision-challenged weakness. Nobody revealed awareness of the inner competition among the president’s “negotiators” portrayed in Ms. Fox’s creative tea-leaves reading.