Moammar Gaddafi, apparently, has died. The dictator is dead; long live the National Transitional Council and whatever follows it. How this news will resonate in Damascus and Sana’a one can only guess. One suspects, at any event, that the picture of a wounded or killed Gaddafi will acquire iconic status, unless its gruesomeness reminds too many people on all sides of the gruesomeness all around them in their streets and bazaars as the Arab Spring extends past summer into fall.
Before we get too far ahead of the facts on the ground—as I write CNN continues to exhibit caution about the reports of Gaddafi’s demise—we might think about how we got here. It appears, for example, that a NATO sortie may have fired missiles that hit Gaddafi’s convoy as it escaped the impending fall of his hometown, Sirte. This raises rather poignantly a couple of questions.
I have defended President Obama’s much maligned leadership style on this blog, and the fall of Gaddafi presents more evidence in its favor. When the NATO mission took shape, with us briefly in the lead and then in support over the not very long haul, the arrangement became the target of criticism from the right in the United States. Sens. Lindsay Graham and John McCain, in particular, characterized the plan as ineffective. One will find it interesting to see how they eat this particular crow.
However Graham and McCain preserve their integrity or not, their opposition to the NATO mission issues from a number of perspectives, not least the American exceptionalist position that we lead everything. Obama, instead, believes in partnership when appropriate, a belief based on a realistic assessment of American power and responsibilities. The Graham-McCain complaints, however, also speak to another oft-observed characteristic of our society: a lack of patience. Given a chance, Obama’s NATO strategy, run by an American admiral, did precisely what he said it would do, as CNN’s reporters have noted this morning. Given a chance.
We shock easily in part because we believe in instant truths, only to see them unravel over time. Steve Jobs founded Apple, then left in a conflict with the corporate style of its one-time partner AOL. Apple tanked. When Jobs returned to a basket-case version of his company noone gave him a chance to turn it around. Noone had the patience, in other words, to give him a chance. Shortly before his death Apple had a moment as the largest corporation in the United States.
What we think we know evolves over time. The competition in the media, one of our principal sources of information, to provide information instantly, serves us in the moment but does us a disservice over time. We cannot know everything at once, not even whether a new military strategy will work, or maybe particularly a military strategy.
Obama stands for a kind of politics of patience. This drives those who live by media-time and speak in sound-bytes crazy, and engenders all sorts of phony charges of weakness and ineptitude. In fact we have a very canny leader, if only we would let ourselves see patience as a virtue in a president. After all, how many Republicans considered FDR an idiot on December 6, 1941?
Obama has brought us a vision of the president as a patient philosopher-king, his recent spate of worried campaigning notwithstanding. I almost wish he would fall back on his oft-repeated willingness to serve a single term, a declaration we have not heard from him in some time. That way, if he must leave office—and I obviously belong to the “say it ain’t so” faction on this—he can do so with the consistency of one who valued more than political success.
PS—McCain exceeded even my low opinion of him.
Chapel Hill, NC
October 2, 2011