View­ing the world through the wrong end of the tele­scope

Obama’s rigid ded­i­ca­tion to leftist the­ol­ogy en­dan­gers the rest of us

The Washington Times Weekly - - Com­men­tary - By John R. Bolton

Pres­i­dent Obama’s halt­ing, er­ratic, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory re­sponse to the Is­lamic State’s emer­gence is a clas­sic ex­am­ple how rigid ide­ol­ogy can dis­tort re­al­ity. His un­will­ing­ness to ac­knowl­edge the de­vel­op­ing threat, to pre­pare a coun­ter­strat­egy be­fore it metas­ta­sized, or to re­spond ad­e­quately to its grow­ing suc­cess, all demon­strate the con­se­quences when ide­ol­ogy tri­umphs over con­trary ev­i­dence.

Mr. Obama has whip­sawed be­tween de­rid­ing ISIS (or ISIL, as the Is­lamic State was orig­i­nally known) as “jayvee” ter­ror­ists, to in­sist­ing it be “de­graded and ul­ti­mately de­stroyed” as a men­ace that can­not be rea­soned with, while show­ing a jaw-drop­ping in­abil­ity to char­ac­ter­ize the con­flict as a “war.” He has or­dered airstrikes against Is­lamic State tar­gets with­out many re­stric­tive rules of en­gage­ment im­posed on our forces else­where, but has si­mul­ta­ne­ously ruled out us­ing U.S. com­bat arms to achieve that goal, even though nearly 2,000 Amer­i­can mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers are cur­rently in Iraq. Now, af­ter mere weeks of spo­radic air at­tacks, the pres­i­dent has “piv­oted” away from the Is­lamic State threat, back to ex­tolling his do­mes­tic eco­nomic ac­com­plish­ments.

What is go­ing on here with Mr. Obama? His syco­phants at­tribute his pas­siv­ity and de­tach­ment from re­al­ity to the subtlety of his in­tel­lect, and his abil­ity to com­pre­hend com­plex prob­lems far be­yond the in­ad­e­quate ca­pac­i­ties of his crit­ics. This is al­most cer­tainly Mr. Obama’s view, nar­cis­sism be­ing one of his strong suits.

The crit­ics have nu­mer­ous al­ter­na­tive the­o­ries, start­ing with as­sess­ing that Mr. Obama is all about pol­i­tics and not at all about gov­er­nance. His ad­min­is­tra­tion’s reck­less dis­re­gard for le­gal and con­sti­tu­tional re­straints re­flects that be­ing eco­nom­i­cal with the truth is now the White House’s stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure, as the Beng­hazi and In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice scan­dals and sub­se­quent cover-ups ex­em­plify. More ex­otic hy­pothe­ses also abound, from his parent­age and her­itage to his reli­gious be­liefs and fun­da­men­tal mo­tives.

Rather than in­dulging in pop psy­chol­ogy or con­spir­acy the­o­riz­ing, we should seek the most straight­for­ward ex­pla­na­tion con­sis­tent with the ev­i­dence.

The real root cause, how­ever, is ide­ol­ogy. The ev­i­dence is over­whelm­ing that Mr. Obama is blinded by a world­view un­for­tu­nately far from unique in aca­demic and leftist cir­cles. Our univer­sity fac­ulty lounges are over­flow­ing with his ilk. He sees Amer­ica’s place in the world as more prob­lem­atic than ben­e­fi­cial and, there­fore, con­cludes that a with­drawn, unassertive Amer­ica is bet­ter for us and for the world. While most Amer­i­cans be­lieve this is look­ing at the world through the wrong end of a tele­scope, it is nonethe­less the view of Mr. Obama and the pro­fes­so­riat gen­er­ally.

The ide­ol­ogy af­fects Mr. Obama’s con­duct as pres­i­dent (such as deal­ing with the Is­lamic State or Beng­hazi) by pro­vid­ing screens over his per­cep­tion of re­al­ity that make it im­pos­si­ble for him to process in­for­ma­tion that con­tra­dicts his world­view. So au­to­matic and rigid are these screens, they do not func­tion by con­scious choice, but are essen­tially au­to­matic. Worst of all, they do not ad­just even af­ter re­peat­edly prov­ing them­selves coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in deal­ing with the re­al­ity the av­er­age Amer­i­can sees clearly.

The ef­fects of these screens over per­cep­tion, and sim­i­lar fil­ter­ing mech­a­nism were bril­liantly de­scribed more than 50 years ago in Karl Deutsch’s clas­sic “The Nerves of Gov­ern­ment.” Deutsch ex­plained how re­ceiv­ing, fil­ter­ing, re­mem­ber­ing and re­com­bin­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions flows was the essence of gov­ern­ment, and that de­cid­ing which in­for­ma­tion was rel­e­vant and im­por­tant, dis­tin­guish­ing it from the mass of other com­mu­ni­ca­tions that could over­whelm in­di­vid­u­als or in­sti­tu­tions, was key to un­der­stand­ing de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The fil­ters that let some in­for­ma­tion through, but keep other in­for­ma­tion out of the crit­i­cal of de­ci­sion-mak­ing, are thus ob­vi­ously cen­tral to un­der­stand­ing how Mr. Obama or any­one else ul­ti­mately makes de­ci­sions.

Screens come in many dif­fer­ent forms, but pre­con­ceived ide­olo­gies are among the most pow­er­ful, since they re­flect a per­son’s ba­sic be­liefs. To be con­tin­u­ously ef­fec­tive, how­ever, feed­back about the suit­abil­ity of the in­for­ma­tion must in­clude the on­go­ing ca­pac­ity to ad­just the screens to deal with ac­tual re­al­ity, or ul­ti­mately the in­di­vid­ual or the in­sti­tu­tion it­self will per­ish. As Lord John May­nard Keynes once re­port­edly said, “Why, sir, when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”

In Mr. Obama’s case, he does not change his mind, facts be damned. He does not have a feed­back loop. His ide­o­log­i­cal screens re­main firmly in place, in­creas­ingly dis­abling him from com­pre­hend­ing or deal­ing with in­ter­na­tional re­al­ity, dan­ger­ously ex­pos­ing the United States now for al­most six years. Still larger dif­fi­cul­ties and threats loom in his pres­i­dency’s re­main­ing two years, as our op­po­nents seek to ad­vance their agen­das be­fore Mr. Obama de­parts.

Crit­i­cally, how­ever, vot­ers should learn the les­son that Washington needs lead­ers, in the White House and in Congress, whose ex­pe­ri­ences and val­ues ground them in in­ter­na­tional re­al­ity, not merely de­rived from aca­demic es­says, staff brief­ings and ab­stract the­o­riz­ing. Our Novem­ber elec­tions are a golden op­por­tu­nity to bring ex­actly such peo­ple into the House and the Se­nate, and the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion will be even more im­por­tant. If we fail to heed the lessons of Barack Obama, we have only our­selves to blame. John R. Bolton, a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, is a se­nior fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.


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