Monday, August 22, 2016

Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner

Can anyone defend Obama's foreign policy while acknowledging some missteps? I've just finished reading an excellent book that is strategically defensive but even more valuable as an explanation of the big themes and big picture that has shaped the president's policies. Derek Chollet, who worked at senior levels in the Clinton State Department, the Obama National Security Council, and the Pentagon, has written The Long Game, arguing that Obama has tried and often succeeded to fashion policies that sought long range accomplishments rather than short-term benefits. [Full disclosure: I've known Chollet for nearly two decades and consider him an exemplary public servant.]

Others may find his book a codification of the Obama Doctrine and a defense against critics. I see its primary value as an explanation, from an insider, of the difficult choices faced by the administration as it dealt with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Russia and other security challenges. Chollet acknowledges many criticisms of those policies, notes those where he agrees, but also explains why the president made different choices. It's easy for outsiders to suggest alternatives since they don't have to live with the consequences, pr the practicalities of implementation.

The trouble with explanation, however, is that is often sounds overly defensive. As the French saying [variously attributed and actually used by Tolstoy] goes, Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner. To understand all is to forgive all. If you really understand the difficult circumstances and competing choices faced by policymakers, you are more likely to forgive them rather than attributing stupidity or malice.

Mark Twain made a similar point when he said,"Wagner's music is better than it sounds."

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