Obama and Michael Lewis on making the crucial invisible decision

Best NPR story I’ve heard in a while was by Michael Lewis (author of Blind Side, The Big Short, and Money Ball), who shadowed President Obama for 6 months:

Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya

He had been told that the French and the British were proposing to create a no-fly zone over Libya. His military people told Obama that a no-fly zone actually wouldn’t stop Gadhafi, because Gadhafi wasn’t flying. It was basically political cover — ‘Look, we’re doing something’ kind of thing. So he goes to a meeting and he’s presented with two options: One is do nothing at all, and the other is establish this no-fly zone, which he’s already figured out actually doesn’t do anything. So, what he does, to get an argument he’s not getting from the important people in the room, is he says to the junior people in the room, ‘Tell me what you think we should do.’ And several of those people around the room say, ‘We need to figure out a way to stop this slaughter.’

And Obama turns to his generals and says, ‘Go back to the Pentagon. Come back with an option that actually prevents this slaughter.’ But you step back from this process and you think, here’s a president basically making a decision all by himself that his top advisers would not have him make. And the consequence is, you know, a hundred-thousand people in Libya are now alive who would have been dead. To me … it’s a breathtaking power. And it’s one that goes in this election season sort of hardly mentioned. Because in this case, except peripherally, it didn’t seem to affect Americans very much.

That is why I think Obama is a great president.

Any fool can judge a man by his successes. But at this moment in time – at the end of the era of limitless economic growth – great accomplishments will be rare. In these times, we must measure our leaders by their ability to see beyond  the limited options that are presented to them. Many mediocre leaders would have  accepted the counsel of their experts, done the safe and ineffective thing, and said “I listened to my experts on this” afterward as an excuse for failure.  Eventually – and it make take more than 4 years – leaders who take risks do succeed.

Righteousness has always been the fruit of the few who make decisions at odds with the world.

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