The Value Of In Person, Versus In Writing

The recent attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have come on the heels of reports that President Obama has missed more than half of his daily intelligence briefing meetings.  And, in the wake of the embassy attacks, The Independent, a British newspaper, is reporting that the the U.S. received warnings of attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates but did not respond to them.  The Obama Administration flatly denies the latter report.

The Obama Administration doesn’t deny that the President has missed a lot of his daily intelligence briefings but argues that missing the meetings really isn’t that important because the President can get all the information he needs from briefing books.  As the writer of the linked article points out, that position stands in contrast to earlier reports in which Administration sources contended that the daily meetings were important and were well handled by the President.

I don’t doubt that President Obama gets lots of information in writing and reads it carefully.  In addition, some complicated concepts are better explained on paper.  Still, I think face-to-face interaction must play an important role.  Obviously, you can’t ask questions of a briefing book, but there are other important elements to in-person discussions.  The act of preparing for such meetings — finishing the review of briefing books in advance, preparing questions, deciding where to focus — itself has value for the person leading the meeting.  Attending such meetings shows that you attach importance to what the other participants do and thereby encourages them; attendance also permits give-and-take, brainstorming, and free-wheeling discussion that simply can’t be replicated by a written document or an email exchange.  Finally, humans communicate a lot of information through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and other methods that can’t be translated to writing.

I’m not saying that President Obama could have waded through intelligence information and pieced together clues that would have alerted him to the impending attacks if he had regularly attended the daily intelligence briefings, as President Bush apparently did.  What I am saying is that national security issues are a crucial part of the President’s job, and that attending meetings where the President participates, in person, in discussions about intelligence and threat issues is an important part of doing that job the right way.  I don’t know why President Obama has missed so many of these meetings, and what other events took priority on his schedule.  In view of this week’s events, however, I think he, and we, would be better served if he made it a point to make those meetings.

The Wave Rolls On

In the Middle East, these are interesting times — which means these also are interesting times in the halls of the State Department.

With popular protests having brought down the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, the wave of demonstrations for democracy is sweeping on to other countries in the region.  We are seeing unrest in Bahrain, violent encounters between government forces and anti-government activists in Libya, and clashes between police and protesters in Yemen.  Governments in places like Jordan are trying to implement reforms that they hope will quell popular unrest.  The wave has even reached Iran, where there have been confrontations between security forces and supporters of opposition to the government.

It is not clear yet how big, or how powerful, this wave of protest against undemocratic regimes will be.  Waves are unpredictable.  Sometimes waves that look enormous peter out, and waves also can be indiscriminate in their destructive force.  In a year, we could see a Middle East that looks pretty much the same as it does right now, or we could see an area filled with many new governments.  And if that is the result, who knows whether the governments will support peace with Israel and be favorably inclined to America, or whether we will see more governments predicated on intolerant religious fundamentalism, or whether we will see something else entirely?  In America, and in Israel, we watch with anticipation and dread as the wave rolls on.

A Region In Turmoil, And A Foreign Policy In The Balance

A dictatorial government has been overthrown in Tunisia.  Protests continue to rage in Egypt, causing long-time leader Hosni Mubarak to reshape his government and to declare that he will not seek “re-election.”  Whether he can remain in power until September, as he plans, is anyone’s guess.  Significant protests also have occurred in Jordan and Yemen. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks reported by the BBC, has said that the entire Mideast region is in the grip of powerful forces and that the status quo is not sustainable.  The inevitable question is whether other countries in the region — such as Lebanon, Syria, Libya, and even Saudi Arabia — also will be the site of mass protests and regime change.

Revolutions — even revolutions that, like the protests in Egypt, seem to be motivated by desire for freedom and democracy — can be unpredictable in their results.  Were the bloody Jacobin governments and eventually the reign of Napoleon really preferable to the corrupt French monarchy?  History teaches that there can be no assurance that, long-term, the governments that may replace the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes will be preferable to those that went before.

These circumstances present foreign policy challenges that are far more difficult than any yet confronted by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.  They will be asked to make quick decisions in the face of fast-moving events, decisions that may have profound consequences.  All Americans, whether Republican, Democrat, or independent, should hope that their decisions help to produce a Middle East that is more stable and more democratic, rather than the opposite — because the opposite could be catastrophic.