44 The 3 a.m. Phone Call: On Sleep

In another of his comic exempla essays, Montaigne presents several amusing tales of military leaders who, on the eve of ominous events, laid down to deep, restful sleep. Montaigne wrote:

I have noted as something quite rare the sight of great persons who remain so utterly unmoved when engaged in high enterprises and in affairs of some moment that they do not even cut short their sleep.

One of the staples of modern Presidential campaigns, especially those of experienced candidates who suddenly find themselves losing to younger more exciting opponents, is the “red telephone” advertisement. During the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton ran her version of the ad, with a voice over asking rhetorically which candidate, she or Barack Obama, voters would rather have answering the phone at 3 a.m.

Walter Mondale ran a similar ad against Gary Hart during the 1984 primary season – and the fact that neither the former First Lady nor the former Vice President ultimately won their respective elections argues for retiring the red telephone forever. (Besides, when I think of a red telephone flashing, I always think of Alfred the Butler picking it up.)

The point of these advertisements is that older, experienced hands are much more reliable in a time of crisis than someone with less foreign policy experience. It’s a dubious assumption. President Lyndon Johnson’s notorious “Daisy” commercial left the impression that Sen. Barry Goldwater was both inexperienced in foreign affairs and a warmonger. After winning the election, LBJ systematically escalated the war in Vietnam and mismanaged it so badly that no successor could have turned it into a victory.

Perhaps a better test of Presidential leadership is the Montaigne test. Knowing that a great crisis was about to come to a head within 24 hours, which leader would have the serenity to lay down to a normal night’s sleep? Montaigne noted that the ability to remain calm in the face of chaos is quite rare and the sign of greatness. The normal human reaction, Montaigne notes, is to feel anxiety. He wrote:

Reason ordains that we should keep to the same road but not to the same rate; and although the wise man must never allow his human passions to make him stray from the right path, he may without prejudice to his duty certainly quicken or lessen his speed, though never plant himself down like some fixed and impassive Colossus.

Exemplary traits are not gained with age, necessarily; they are more a sign of character. Undoubtedly many voters in 2008 made a decision to vote for Barack Obama instead of John McCain after seeing the reactions of both candidates to the financial crisis. Given how voters feel today about the financial bailout, I wonder if voters today view Obama’s calm during that crisis as favorably as they did then. Obama showed an instinct towards trusting expert opinion and not getting ahead of an unfolding crisis at that time.

The same traits are coming through now in respect to the Middle East uprisings. A more hyperactive President, seeing this as his or her opportunity to put a signature on a historical event, might take any number of actions to appear “on top” of the situation. Many are now calling for the U.S. to enforce a “no fly zone” in Libya, for example.

How then-candidate Obama and his team responded to the Clinton “red telephone” ad should have given everyone a clear signal about how he would approach a crisis like this. David Plouffe, who is now the White House Communications Chief, said this about the Clinton ad back then:

Sen. Clinton’s red-phone moment in her career was in 2002. And she supported the Iraq war, supported President Bush. … Ultimately an ad like this is going to make people focus on judgment.

Ultimately, President Obama is going to have to square the promise of his election – that he rose through the Democratic primaries because he opposed the Iraq War – with the reality of world events. To date, it’s been a mixed bag. The President is slowly pulling us out of Iraq, but 47,000 American troops are still on the ground. Meanwhile, there are 94,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, with no end in sight.

His Secretary of State Bob Gates said at West Point last month:

Any future defense secretary who advises the President to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.

And yet, here we are at the brink of committing U.S. forces to secure a no-fly zone in Libya. I seem to recall a no fly zone we secured for roughly a decade in Iraq – all it did, ultimately, was build a case for an eventual ground-based invasion of that country to oust a despot who continued to consolidate power, despite the U.S. leash.

If the precedent is set for “stopping genocide” by grounding airplanes in Libya, how will we respond when U.S.-bought helicopters (not to mention AWACs aircraft) are used to quash the inevitable rebellion in Saudi Arabia? Are we creeping towards an “Obama Doctrine” that U.S. force will be used to support any rebel uprising, regardless of how such instability will affect U.S. political and economic interests?

President Obama’s term is up in a little more than 22 months. During his re-election campaign, he is perfectly free to redefine his leadership priorities and to let the American people decide if they support the new direction. Until then, he has a responsibility to be the President we elected – the one who considered his opposition to the Iraq War to be the ultimate proof of his judgment and the crisis manager whose first instinct in the fall of 2008 was to not play the hero.

Whether those actions will make President Obama the kind of easy-sleeping sage that Montaigne prefers is a question that only history can answer.

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