Never having read anything written by Michael Lewis before, I didn't know what to expect when I started reading his long piece for the October issue of Vanity Fair, Obama's Way. I had just watched Lewis being interviewed about the piece on The Rachel Maddow Show where he was just as entertaining as he was the one other time I had seen him interviewed last year on The Daily Show. I totally enjoyed when Lewis explained to Jon Stewart how the women in Iceland threw the men out of the banks after they lost $100 billion.
To understand how air-force navigator Tyler Stark ended up in a thornbush in the Libyan desert in March 2011, one must understand what it’s like to be president of the United States—and this president in particular. Hanging around Barack Obama for six months, in the White House, aboard Air Force One, and on the basketball court, Michael Lewis learns the reality of the Nobel Peace Prize winner who sent Stark into combat.I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article which read more like a novelette telling a story about what happened to the pilot whose plane crashed over Libya intertwined with a narrative of how President Obama goes about making decisions. During his interview with Rachel Maddow (included below the fleur-de-orange), Lewis explained how President Obama reached his decision to bomb Libya, but reading the entire piece puts everything in perspective, and provides a window into how President Obama actually goes about the job of being the President of the United States. Here's a glimpse of the article where first everybody yelled because President Obama wasn't doing anything about Libya, and then they yelled when he did.
Obama made his decision: push for the U.N resolution and effectively invade another Arab country. Of the choice not to intervene he says, “That’s not who we are,” by which he means that’s not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal. “No one in the Cabinet was for it,” says one witness. “There was no constituency for doing what he did.” Then Obama went upstairs to the Oval Office to call European heads of state and, as he puts it, “call their bluff.” Cameron first, then Sarkozy. It was three a.m. in Paris when he reached the French president, but Sarkozy insisted he was still awake. (“I’m a young man!”) In formal and stilted tones the European leaders committed to taking over after the initial bombing. The next morning Obama called Medvedev to make sure that the Russians would not block his U.N. resolution. There was no obvious reason why Russia should want to see Qaddafi murder a city of Libyans, but in the president’s foreign dealings the Russians play the role that Republicans currently more or less play in his domestic affairs. The Russians’ view of the world tends to be zero-sum: if an American president is for it, they are, by definition, against it. Obama thought that he had made more progress with the Russians than he had with the Republicans; Medvedev had come to trust him, he felt, and believed him when he said the United States had no intention of moving into Libya for the long term. A senior American official at the United Nations thought that perhaps the Russians let Obama have his resolution only because they thought it would end in disaster for the United States.The timing of this article couldn't be any better. With Romney constantly being asked why he didn't mention the troops in his convention speech, and the constant saber rattling against Iran coming from right-wingers, showing how the President we have makes decisions based on what's best for people, and without giving consideration to the political repercussions demonstrates that President Obama deserves to be reelected. When you watch/read the interview with Rachel Maddow, she makes an excellent point that majority of Americans do not want to go back to the Bush/Cheney era of foreign policy. That comment is based on poll numbers Rachel quoted in the preceding segment of her show.
And it could have. All that exists for any president are the odds. On March 17 the U.N. gave Obama his resolution. The next day he flew to Brazil and was there on the 19th, when the bombing began. A group of Democrats in Congress issued a statement demanding Obama withdraw from Libya; Ohio Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich asked if Obama had just committed an impeachable offense. All sorts of people who had been hounding the president for his inaction now flipped and questioned the wisdom of action. A few days earlier Newt Gingrich, busy running for president, had said, “We don’t need the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” Four days after the bombing began, Gingrich went on the Today show to say he wouldn’t have intervened and was quoted on Politico as saying, “It is impossible to make sense of the standard of intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity.” The tone of the news coverage shifted dramatically, too. One day it was “Why aren’t you doing anything?” The next it was “What have you gotten us into?” As one White House staffer puts it, “All the people who had been demanding intervention went nuts after we intervened and said it was outrageous. That’s because the controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine.”
The one thing I can say after reading this insider's look inside President Obama's day-to-day life, I can't see Mitt Romney doing this job with the kind of cool demeanor that our current President exhibits. I also wonder if those parents of the pilot have changed their mind about President Obama.
Video of President Obama: Today the war in Iraq is over. In Afghanistan we're training Afghan security forces and forging a partnership with the Afghan people. And by the end of 2014 the longest war in our history will be over. [break in clip] When the history books are written, the true legacy of 9/11 will not be one of fear or hate or division. It will be a safer world, a stronger nation and a people more united than ever before.Rachel Maddow: President Obama speaking during a 9/11 memorial service today at the Pentagon. Our next guest, Michael Lewis, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, spent eight months with President Obama this year talking about how this president does his job day-to-day and specifically how this president views matters of war and peace and makes decisions about those things. The details are in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair and it is a brilliant piece of work. Michael Lewis, thank you for being here.
Michael Lewis: Thanks for having me.
RM: Why do you think President Obama let you have this kind of access for eight months and was the idea from the outset that you would talk a lot about war and peace?
ML: No. I'm sure he thought I was going to come in and write about how he handled the financial crisis because I've have written books about that. And I've written nothing about foreign policy. I know very little about it. So I think he was probably a little shocked when I said I kind of wanted to center the piece on on his decision to go in and save this city in Libya.
ML: So the answer to your first question, it's interesting because he never explained why it was that he let me just kind of tag along with him, which is what he did. I mean, what he did is he gave me the opportunity to get to know him, which is what I needed to do to write what I wanted to write. And if you think how different that is from most political people; I mean I found out kind of on the sly that he's probably read a few of my books. He never mentioned it. And I can attest to every politician I've met, the first thing they say is I loved your book, and you can tell they hadn't read it. It's a culture of flattery that he has no part of. I mean, he could have flattered. He didn't do it at all. He never explained why he was letting me have this experience.
RM: You write about how he is different than other politicians that you have known, or from things you would expect from other politicians in terms of little personal things like making sure that his basketball game is a hard game.
RM: What kind of insight does that give you into the way he approaches bigger decisions?
ML: Well, he likes a challenging environment and he likes an environment that, where people basically treat him as an equal. But one of the things that quickly became clear to me is, I would ask him ... the way I framed the conversation in the beginning was teach me how to be president. Let's pretend that in 30 minutes you're gone, I'm replacing you, what do I need to know? And it became clear in these conversations that I had to think about this as a decision-making job. And I had to create an environment, if I was going to be a good president, in which I maximize the likelihood the decision was a good one. So I wanted to find a decision that had his fingerprints all over it. Show me how Obama makes a decision. And oddly when you go into domestic policy it's a poor place to explore that because there's so much noise. I mean, if he tries to do, if he comes out, if advocates anything now, the other side is against it simply because he's for it. And in some ways, the process is paralyzed; but foreign policy, not so much. He does have this great latitude. So you can actually see his mind in action and his process in action; and his mind leading to a result.
RM: You document in great detail how he made the decision about Libya, how he took the decision-making process from yes or no on a no-fly zone to ...
ML: Yes, yes.
RM: So he decided that was a pointless ...
ML: Can I have a 20 second segue? So all right, these decisions are thrust upon him. He is presented with a situation. Gadhafi is marching through the desert promising to exterminate a city of people in Benghazi. There are a million or so people in Benghazi. A genocide is probably about to happen. The French and the British are proposing what we do about this is establish a no-fly zone. Obama has a meeting with his senior advisors in the Pentagon to discuss what to do; how to respond to the French proposal. The Pentagon gives them two options. Do nothing or go along and establish the no-fly zone. Obama asks if we do the no-fly zone is that going to save the people in Benghazi? And they so no, he's actually marching through the desert so it doesn't matter.
RM: He's not flying.
ML: He's not flying. So Obama quickly sees this is just, it's cover; it’s political cover. And he gets; he solicits opinions around the room, outside ... from people who aren't the important people. And a number of those people have a view that really we should be thinking about genocide as a national security issue. It may not seem like a core national security issue, whether we let these million people be exterminated or not, but it creates a mood in the world when you let that happened and you can prevent that from happening. These things we're seeing in Libya now are going to be much worse if we don't encourage our friends and sort of walk the walk and not just talk the talk. So Obama says to them come back in two hours with an actual solution to the problem so we can consider it. And they come back with what we eventually did.
RM: Literally, two hours later.
ML: Two hours later.
RM: I have to go to a ceremony ...
ML: I have to go to a ceremonial dinner. I'll be back in two hours. Meanwhile, what's going on in his life, he's planning the attack on Osama bin Laden's compound. He's got a million things going on. This is one little sliver of the presidency. And on his decision rests the lives of a million people in the dessert of Libya. It's incredible. It shows the incredible power of the presidency, but because he reframed the decision and forced them to give him a good option. And the good option was we go in; we have the capacity to go in and stop Gadhafi in his tracks, but we have to make sure that other people have the ownership so we don't get stuck in a quagmire. And that's what he did. He got accused of leading from behind, and in fact, an American pilot falls from the sky because his plane malfunctions and he's saved and brought to safety by people in Benghazi. They assume he's French because they didn't even know we were involved. But it creates a, it's a very interesting dynamic he created. He solved the problem. He went outside of the process to solve the problem. The process wanted him to do nothing; didn't want us in there. And he solved the problem in such a way that it was not construed as an act of American imperialism or our lust for Libyan oil. It just was a humanitarian intervention and it worked. What's interesting about this at the end, it's one of his triumphs what he did in Libya. And as a result, you don't hear a lot about it because nobody has an interest in talking about what he's done well. But even he says now, you know, that decision looks like a no brainer, but it was a 51-49 decision. And every decision that comes across my desk is like that. Even now I can see how it could have gone wrong. It could have been a mistake to go in. It was not easy to make that decision.
RM: In hindsight, everybody says it was obvious.
ML: Yeah, everybody says obvious; obviously not obvious.
RM: The reason I'm grateful that this is out right now is that I feel like it's critically important for us as a country right now that we're not having a partisan fight over foreign policy. I think the Republicans are dysfunctional on this issue of foreign policy. They're just deciding not to update post Bush-Cheney. Even though they know Bush-Cheney era proposals will not fly at all. It's literally a flightless bird with an injury. It would never happen. And I think because we're not having that fight, not only is President Obama's decision making process really important, and this is a great window into it, but it makes me wonder what it would be like if he really was; if the Republicans were really contesting it? If we were really having national debates about this stuff, it seems it would be much more like the decisions around domestic policy.
ML: We're not going to have the debate. No, we're not going to have the debate. But to get back to this president, that decision you can trace back to his Nobel Prize winning speech where he actually wrestles with this question what a just war is. And in a speech accepting a peace prize before a largely European audience, he makes a case for war. And you back away from that and you think, what are the politics of that? What's the upside of that? No obvious ones. So my experience with the president was, whatever else he is, whether you approve of him or disapprove of him; he's an interesting cat. He's different. He's different.
RM: Michael Lewis, Vanity Fair contributing editor. It's called Obama's Way. The new article in the new issue of Vanity Fair. He's also the author of Boomerang, which is now out in paperback; Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Michael Lewis, I love talking to you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for writing this piece. It's great to see you.
ML: Great to see you.