The Strange Purity of Losing Confronts Obama

Barack Obama was smart to evoke Ronald Reagan as he did, and too many people who sincerely work for peace and justice missed the point. My guess is that its an orientation problem. 

Back in Seminary, it became clear to me that there were two ways of doing ethics — the internal approach and the external approach. The internal approach focuses on the subject and asks “is what I’m doing consistent with standards of morality?” The external approach focuses on the object of concern and asks “who and what are affected by what I’m doing, and how?”

Translated roughly into political language, the internal approach would ask “am I naming the good and the bad correctly?” The external approach would ask “am I moving hearts and minds toward a good future?”

Internalists seek purity. Externalists seek results. Guess who has the political advantage in these extraverted United States of America?

Nevertheless, Obama’s critics complained that he said nice things about that (bad) Ronald Reagan. When Reaganism is viewed to be flawed in some respects, their internalistic purity demands that it be spoken of as flawed in all respects.

This, even though Reagan’s winning of 44 states in 1980, and 49 in 1984, indicated that he must have done some things right. The fact that antipoverty and peace advocates still complain about his legacy also says that Reagan was — how else to say it? — effective.

Barack Obama simply was raising the effectiveness of the man. Ronald Reagan got results, and perhaps especially because of the impact of those results, he hopes that the next president can achieve results as significant, but in another direction.

What could be more straightforward? In this respect, style (or strategy) matters. It’s why American military strategists study blitzkrieg — not because they’re praising Nazis, but because it worked.

Speaking of the military, I was boggled by a glowing obituary for a career military man that appeared in Alexander Cockburn’s “Beat the Devil” column in The Nation in April, 1997. When The Nation pays tribute to military figures, it’s worth paying attention. Cockburn wrote:

One of the more radical minds in America left us last week. Col. John Boyd died in Florida at the age of 70, and though the Air Force honored him Thursday, March 20, with a funeral in Arlington, complete with guard and fly-by, there are doubtless many souls in the Pentagon relieved that so troublesome an intellect is no longer on active service.

When people want to make a gesture toward literary strategic thinking they usually come up with a couple of quotes from the great Sun Tzu or that overrated Prussian bore von Clausewitz. But among theorists of conflict Boyd was unrivaled, and it is no exaggeration to set him on the plinth next to Sun Tzu…

Back in the Air Force after a spell at college, Boyd flew missions over Korea, and here is where his ideas began to take form. As he pondered the reason for the better kill ratio of the American F-86 fighter plane over the theoretically superior Soviet MIG-15, it occurred to Boyd that the U.S. plane’s advantage lay in the fact that the pilot had a far better field of vision from his cockpit, and that though the MIG-15 could accelerate and turn better, the F-86 was superior in transitioning from one maneuver to the next.

Thus germinated Boyd’s concept of the underlying patterns of conflict, and how the upper hand in any conflict could be obtained. He summarized it in a mnemonic: OODA, or, as he called it, the OODA Loop, with the letters standing for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action. Key here is the ability to run through the OODA Loop, or a series of these, quicker than your opponent…

Boyd [eventually] …became an underground hero in Washington, delivering his ideas in what was known as the Boyd Briefing.
In its ultimate form this briefing took thirteen hours to deliver, as Boyd gave enthralled audiences–often military officers–what amounted to a unified field theory of human activity, ranging from the tactics of fighter combat to the rivalries of economic and political systems. The briefings were open to anyone interested. Among the keenest students of Boyd were a bunch of Republicans including Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich, who lost no time in inviting Boyd to lecture at the Republican Campaign Academy, Gingrich’s staff college. Though Boyd would have been equally ready to instruct Democrats in the art of war and maneuver, few ever bothered to show up at his talks. Boydians would say that they certainly paid the price, as they were politically outmaneuvered in the early nineties.

And too many of the folks who support peace and justice for people in poverty have also paid the price, and have been paying the price ever since.

Myself, I took Cockburn’s point as a challenge. I landed on an awesome web site run by Boyd protege Chet Richards, I studied. I took a sabbatical to study in depth. I applied Boyd’s ideas to advocacy with good results. I put together mini-briefings of my own. And you know what my audiences said?

“Ewwwww… aggression is icky.”
“Ugh. Head trip. No like.”

I learned I was not alone, Scott Ritter’s excellent little book, Waging Peace, also develops John Boyd’s strategic thinking as it applies to antwar advocacy. Because Ritter is a career Marine, his expertise far outstrips mine. Even so, we share a similar frustration with the people we are trying to reach. Apparently competitiveness is a turn-off to much of the peace-and-justice world.

But Boyd, Ritter, and myself aren’t simply about competitiveness. We’re about maneuver. So is Obama.  Here’s what he did (in my humble opinion):

1. He set the stage by framing this election as epochal, like 1980 and 1932. In both those years, the status quo had brought America to a place where things didn’t seem to work anymore. In such times, calling for a new — and sunny! — direction resonates. “It’s morning in America.” “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” “Yes, we can!”

2. He responded to the experience question — implying that Clinton experience is experience with incremental change, when what is needed is sweeping change.

3. He also responded to the “management” issue by pointing out that Ronald Reagan accomplished more with his approach than the Clintons did with theirs.

4. He finally opened welcoming arms to all those Reagan Democrats. Nobody likes to be told they’re stupid, and damning Reagan tells a great deal of voters that they voted stupidly.

In short, Barack Obama applied maneuver principles, toward the end of creating the conditions for greater peace and justice as the peace and justice community would define it.  That’s not the internal purity approach of evoking saints as saints and sinners as sinners. Yet is is the approach that has a better chance of getting results.

And to think, he did it without bad-mouthing anyone, really.

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