Friday, March 7, 2008

The 3 AM Phone Call and the Fear of Fear Itself

When, Kristen Breitweiser, a 9/11 widow is given the opportunity to blog on The Huffington Post, her remarks are not to be taken lightly, particularly when she expresses herself with a grammatical clarity that is becoming rarer every day in the blogosphere. However, we all still have an obligation to be critical readers, particularly when, in the framework of the trivium, that grammatical clarity exposes potentially dangerous flaws in her rhetoric and logic. Such is the case with her post this morning that takes on, as she puts it, "Swirling questions as to who is better qualified to answer the menacing phone ringing at 3 a.m."

Let us begin by examining the specious rhetoric in which she frames that "swirling questions" issue:

History proves that al-Qaeda likes to strike within 7-10 year cycles. History also shows that al-Qaeda likes to take advantage of transition times in United States politics. In other words, al-Qaeda knows that new administrations are more vulnerable and ripe for attack. A sobering fact to think about while we witness the back-stabbing, squabbling, and fratricide spewing between the Obama and Clinton camps.

However effective this text may be at grabbing our attention, it misses what should have been a crucial target: History neither "proves" nor "shows" anything. History can never do anything more than offer up a slew of data points. It is then up to the cognitive capacities of the present to interpret those data points as effectively as possible. The best book about interpreting those data points is probably Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by historians Richard Neustadt (who has been particularly interested in Presidential history) and Ernest May. Needless the say, the book is basically a collection of case studies, both positive and negative; there are no "algorithms" for the interpretation of historical data points, whether you're a Commander in Chief or a Chief Executive Officer.

This brings us to the heart of Breitweiser's logic, which involves the role of presidential advisors in interpreting the data points of history in the context of the data points of a crisis in the present:

Yes, there is much dramatic debate revolving around the comparative experience (or relative inexperience) of both Clinton and Obama. Swirling questions as to who is better qualified to answer the menacing phone ringing at 3 a.m. In fact, some people -- namely Obama's foreign policy expert Susan Rice -- feel that neither Clinton and Obama are experienced to answer that phone call. Let's hope she misspoke.

But the truth is that both Clinton and Obama would probably handle the phone call in similar ways. They would do their best to remain calm and lead our country in a time of crisis. Who wouldn't?

They would then turn to their advisors and seek their counsel. Would there be any line of demarcation separating such advice -- in other words, does either candidate have a superior set of advisors? Not really. Frankly, both Clinton and Obama have very similar advisors who would most likely offer the same sort of advice. And that advice would be status quo.

The greatest impediment to the interpretation of history is that old saw about how generals are always fighting the last war they experienced. The same may be said of presidential advisors, which means that, regardless of who is in the White House, the advisory team may well be as ill-equipped to deal with current terrorist threats as they were at the time of the first (failed) attack on the World Trade Center. The one person who seems to have recognized the need for new thinking is Dennis Ross. He expressed his own approach in the book Statecraft; but we do not hear very much from him (except on Book TV). Actually, the closest we may have come recently to putting Ross' theories into practice was probably in the way in which the New York Philharmonic handled their visit to North Korea, although I have no idea if anyone involved with that trip ever read Ross' book. Nevertheless, I see it as a dangerous contamination of status quo thinking that neither Clinton nor Obama had anything to say about how that visit was conducted, either in response to a question from the media or out of their own initiative.

In the terms of the abstract language behind which I hide whenever I venture into the swamplands of social theory, what made Ross unique was his ability to evaluate a dangerous situation in terms of agents taking motivated actions. The advisers who got us through the Cuban Missile Crisis seem to have had a better understanding of that subtle concept of "motive" than most of the current crop of "wise (wo)men;" and it seems as if, each time more documents about that crisis come to light, we gain greater appreciation of that understanding. Ross is the only one who has gone back to their basics. (The other exception may be Richard Clarke. My guess is that the reasoning that led him to see the seriousness of Al Qaeda had a lot to do with interpreting his data in terms of motivated actions.)

In that respect Hillary is no different from either of her alternatives: They are all "rooted in political expediency" (in the words of a comment by smartvotersinoregon) at a time when they should be paying more attention to the other players in this dangerous game. The logical weakness in Breitweiser's argument is that she cannot get beyond flogging the dead horse of the status quo at a time when all of us in the electorate should be trying to shove alternatives in the faces of the candidates to gauge their reactions. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this is our obligation, because the forces of the media that are trying to steer the course of the campaign never want to talk about "subtle concepts." They consume too much air time; and, in the rare event that they actually begin to take root in the "media consumer's" brain, they distract from the messages of the commercials. (Simply put, fear sells a lot more soap than social theory!)

Ironically, Hillary's "3 AM Phone Call" gambit invites just the sort of discussion I believe is necessary. Her question of who is there to answer the phone is not the critical one. The more important question is, "What do you do after you hang up the phone?" Neither Clinton nor Obama has even hinted at an answer to this question, but then no one has put it to either of them explicitly. However, such an answer would tell us all a lot about what it means to each of them to be a Commander in Chief.

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