Even though we all ought to concede that it is a blatant fluff piece, Michael Lewis’s long article in Vanity Fair succeeds on a couple of levels. First, it is constructed artfully, which is a sign of a mature and gifted writer. It must have been a pleasure to edit and it’s a very enjoyable read, despite its length. Second, it does a very nice job of giving you a sense for what it is really like to be president. Not just the settings or the aggravations, but the strangeness of it. Being president is a weird thing to be…absurd in many respects, and Lewis brings that out quite effectively.
I’m too tired and hungry to really delve in the bit on Libya, but I just want to make one brief observation. When the president sat down with his Principals to debate what to do about Libya, he was presented with a binary choice: do nothing or support a no-fly zone that they all conceded would not work.
Sec. Clinton supported a no-fly zone, as did Ambassador Susan Rice, but the consensus was for doing nothing. I also approached the decision as a mainly binary choice, although my belief was that after the no-fly zone failed we would be sucked into a bigger conflict. What the president came up with was more imaginative than what I opposed, and it worked better than I predicted.
I still think the talk about Gaddafi killing a hundred thousand people was hype, but he was going to do some serious killing. No doubt, the president saved a lot of lives and he didn’t need to do it. At first, his own leaders, including the Pentagon, didn’t even give an option that would have worked. He had to push them to find a solution.
I still think our decision to intervene in Libya failed any reasonable risk-reward standard, but despite our recent tragedy there, the president pulled it off despite the bad odds. And that’s why he’s president and I am not.