President Obama on Finding Openings

After President Obama gave his speech about the Iran Nuclear Deal at American University, he met with ten journalists to discuss it further. I found this part of Max Fisher’s report to be fascinating.

Toward the end of our meeting with President Obama, one of us asked whether the Iran nuclear deal might change the future of that country’s poisonously anti-American politics, and Obama drifted from the technical and political details he’d otherwise focused on into something of a more reflective tone.

“I just don’t know,” he said, leaning back a bit in his chair for the first time since he’d arrived. “When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out.

“He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping would suddenly come in and decide that it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice, and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march,” Obama said, paraphrasing the famous aphorism by Mao’s successor that capitalistic policies were acceptable if they helped China. “You couldn’t anticipate that.”…

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China’s transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran’s regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon’s historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China’s under Deng, opportunities like Nixon’s trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find “openings” for such moments.

That is an incredibly wise grasp of how history works – even for the most powerful person on the planet. It is a striking rebuke of much that we hear from would-be Republican leaders these days who presume that a President of the United States can control world events via military dominance. For those with some knowledge of history, it is especially important given that the discussion is taking place about a country where we tried that back in 1953 and paid the price for it via the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It reminds me of comments President Obama has made in two other interviews with journalists. First of all, David Remnick.

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

In other words, one of the ways you find openings is to get your paragraph right.

Secondly, he said this in an interview with Tom Friedman.

What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.

Openings are made possible when your self-confidence allows you to take calculated risks.

To sum up: Getting your paragraph right by staying true to your North Star, combined with the self-confidence to take calculated risks, creates openings that can lead to transformative change.

Decades from now we’ll be bearing the fruit of openings this President has made possible with that kind of wisdom.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.