Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Friedman-ization of Obama

Matthew Yglesias points us to a very interesting discussion between Fareed Zakaria and Barack Obama where they touch on a lot of broad ideas about foreign policy that are discussed less often than they should be.

Unfortunately unlike Matt I think the overall impression I get from Obama during the interview is basically negative; I think he's undergoing a process in which he's getting "briefed" by staff on foreign policy doctrine and he's essentially becoming converted to the Beltway consensus on a lot of these issues.

A lot of people on the antiwar left (and yes, that describes me) are going to get really upset about this, and accuse Obama of selling out. But I want to explain, by way of a baseball analogy, why I am not going to get too upset about a lot of this stuff.

Imagine if you were toiling away in some minor-league player personnel office in some second-rate city when you got a call from a major-league club asking you to come in for an interview. And when you get there you find that there's a lot of other candidates there who are far more likely than you to get the job, and you sort of accept that things aren't going to work out but you're excited just to have the opportunity.

Then you nail the interview, a couple of the top candidates for the job wind up dropping out for personal reasons, and before you know it you're reporting for duty as a GM in the major leagues. It's so far beyond your expectations you've got permasmile, even though you're managing the roster of a small-market team with very little money and no real shot to win the title.

At the end of the season, your phone rings again. It's the Yankees. They want to get you out to New York City because you're on the short list to take over as General Manager of the most storied franchise in American sports.

You get the job and you show up during the offseason to hit the books and learn about the players, the contracts, the facilities, all the little details you need to know to run a baseball operation. While you're at it, a lot of the other guys in the organization show up to brief you on various aspects of the Yankees' franchise.

What you find in these little informal bull sessions shocks you. All the mistakes you learned to avoid coming up, these guys are making, and then some. The organization is bloated with waste, shot through with inexact, sloppy procedures and intellectually bankrupt ideas. You're too polite to tell anybody yet, but you realize once you take over things are seriously going to have to change.

But then, a funny thing happens. Something is eating at you. This is The Yankees. Surely they can't be doing everything wrong? A lot of these guys were around for the last run of greatness the franchise had - they have to know something. The more you think about it, the more some of the things these guys are telling you start to make sense.

By the time you start your first season, all of the things that made you a great GM for the Blue Jays are gone, replaced by the Yankee values that have produced a recent run of disappointing teams.

At some point, there will come a moment of realization that in order to fulfill your destiny, you have to get back to what made you right for the top job in the first place.

We're far, far away from that moment for Obama. It's likely to come in 2010 or 2011, when things in Iraq have gone seriously to hell and he has to decide whether to double down (what his people will be urging him to do) or get the hell out (what he should do - and eventually will have to do anyway), but it's certainly not going to come during the campaign.

For now, we watch him channel Tom Friedman, bite our tongues, and win this thing. We can talk in January about how to influence him during his moment of crisis, when it comes.