Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My best wishes for Mr. Obama at his new job

I have stayed away from commenting on US politics because I have enough trouble keeping up with our politics to be able to competently reflect on the spectacle down south. I do, however, wish him the best as he takes on his task. The murmurs coming out as his transition team gathered momentum have been promising. If he follows through, as we have every reason to expect he will, I expect the US will quickly flip from the Bush flop.

My concern for him is that anyone will be hard pressed to live up to the expectations the world has created for him. As Obama mania mounted, the following quote struck a chord (warning: it is a long one. This is Tolstoy after all).

Persons who are accustomed to suppose that plans of campaigns and of battles are made by generals in the same way as any of us sitting over a map in our study make plans of how we would have acted in such and such a position, will be perplexed by questions why Kutuzov, if he had to retreat, did not take this or that course, why he did not take up a position before Fili, why he did not at once retreat to the Kaluga road, leaving Moscow, and so on. Persons accustomed to think in this way forget, or do not know, the inevitable conditions which always limit the action of any commander-in-chief. The action of a commander-in-chief in the field has no sort of resemblance to the action we imagine to ourselves, sitting at our ease in our study, going over some campaign on the map with a certain given number of soldiers on each side, in a certain known locality, starting our plans from a certain moment. The general is neverin the position of the beginning of any event, from which we always contemplate the event. The general is always in the very middle of a changing series of events, so that he is never at any moment in a position to deliberate on all the bearings of the event that is taking place. Imperceptibly, moment by moment, an event takes shape in all its bearings, and at every moment in that uninterrupted, consecutive shaping of events the commander-in-chief is in the centre of a most complex play of intrigues, of cares, of dependence and of power, of projects, counsels, threats, and conceptions, with one thing depending on another, and is under the continual necessity of answering the immense number of mutually contradictory inquiries addressed to him. We are, with perfect seriousness, told by those learned in military matters that Kutuzov ought to have marched his army towards the Kaluga road long before reaching Fili; that somebody did, indeed, suggest such a plan. But the commander of an army has before him, especially at a difficult moment, not one, but dozens of plans. And each of those plans, based on the rules of strategy and tactics, contradicts all the rest. The commander’s duty would, one would suppose, be merely to select one out of those plans; but even this he cannot do. Time and events will not wait. It is suggested to him, let us suppose, on the 28th to move towards the Kaluga road, but at that moment an adjutant gallops up from Miloradovitch to inquire whether to join battle at once with the French or to retire. He must be given instructions at once, at the instant. And the order to retire hinders us from turning to the Kaluga road. And then after the adjutant comes the commissariat commissioner to inquire where the stores are to be taken, and the ambulance director to ask where the wounded are to be moved to, and a courier from Petersburg with a letter from the Tsar, not admitting the possibility of abandoning Moscow, and the commander’s rival, who is trying to cut the ground from under his feet (and there are always more than one such) proposes a new project, diametrically opposed to the plan of marching upon the Kaluga road. The commander’s own energies, too, require sleep and support. And a respectable general, who has been overlooked when decorations were bestowed, presents a complaint, and the inhabitants of the district implore protection, and the officer sent to inspect the locality comes back with a report utterly unlike that of the officer sent on the same commission just previously; and a spy, and a prisoner, and a general who has made a reconnaissance, all describe the position of the enemy’s army quite differently. Persons who forget, or fail to comprehend, those inevitable conditions under which a commander has to act, present to us, for instance, the position of the troops at Fili, and assume that the commander-in-chief was quite free on the 1st of September to decide the question whether to abandon or to defend Moscow, though, with the position of the Russian army, only five versts from Moscow, there could no longer be any question on the subject. When was that question decided? At Drissa, and at Smolensk, and most palpably of all on August the 24th at Shevardino, and on the 26th at Borodino, and every day and hour and minute of the retreat from Borodino to Fili.

Volume III
Chapter II
War and Peace
Leo Tolstoy

This is not an appeal to cut him some slack. I do not believe this will be necessary. I believe he truly wants to bring "real change" to America. It is a call for understanding as he faces the trials ahead. When he disappoints us; as he will at some point, let us remember to look at him in the totality of his legacy.

Evaluating the Obama Presidency will be a different task than with the departing President. Under Bush the actions were so uniformly poor that the need for nuanced criticism was not as evident.

By all means, let us measure him by a progressive yardstick. But if there are missteps along the way or if the sun doesn't smile brighter tomorrow don't give up on him.

Now, back to trying to figure out how to bring real change to the True North.

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