Sometimes a sympathetic and perceptive journalist paints a more devastating portrait of a public figure than even his most vitriolic detractors could. A prime example is Ryan Lizza's New Yorker article titled "The Consequentialist" and subtitled, "How the Arab Spring remade Obama's foreign policy."
Lizza's article, characteristically well reported and well written, reads less like the story of an adult politician's evolving view of foreign issues and more like the story of the wildly oscillating opinions of a college student now in his junior year.
As Lizza points out, Obama didn't think much about foreign policy during his years as a community organizer and Illinois state senator -- no more than the typical good pupil does in the years between kindergarten and eighth grade.
As it became clear that he was going to be elected to the U.S. Senate, he started reading and seeking out foreign policy experts of varying views -- Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria, Anthony Lake and Susan Rice and Samantha Power -- much as a curious high-schooler starts reading interesting books he finds on the shelves.
Arriving in the Senate in 2005, when it was clear that things were going sour in Iraq, Obama took the side of "realists" who always advised caution about military involvement abroad rather than the "idealists" who had backed such involvements in the Bill Clinton years and after.
This served his own interests as he moved toward running for president against Hillary Clinton, who had taken the "idealist" view and voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002. This looks a lot like the freshman and sophomore brown-noser seeking to upstage a rival by embracing a cause widely popular with both the faculty and student body.
As Lizza records, this hugely impressed "realists" like Zbigniew Brzezinski, who saw Obama as a trustworthy acolyte. And Obama's scornful dismissal of George W. Bush's "idealist" calls for advancing democracy around the world had something in common with the adolescent discovery that "Dad is wrong about everything!"
Of course, when Obama got to college, er, the White House, he found that Dad was right about some things. The surge in Iraq was allowed to continue succeeding, and something like a surge was ordered in Afghanistan. Guanatanamo remains open, and CIA interrogators are not going to be prosecuted. Robert Gates was kept in the Pentagon, and Hillary Clinton installed at State.
But Obama clung to his "realist" policy on Iran, treating the mullahs' regime respectfully and showing cool detachment if not cold indifference when the Green Movement rose against the mullahs' election fraud in June 2009.
But by sophomore year, the unreality of the "realist" strategy had become apparent. Lizza quotes a five-page memorandum on the Middle East Obama sent to his top foreign policy advisers in August 2010 noting "evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region's regimes" and instructing them to come up with "country by country" strategies on political reform.
A three-member task force "was just finishing its work" in December when the Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself on fire. In responding to the uprisings there and in Egypt, Lizza reports, "Obama's instinct was to try to have it both ways. ... Obama's ultimate position, it seemed, was to talk like an idealist while acting like a realist."
It's not uncommon for college students to have wildly oscillating views on issues as the months go by. It's more consequential for a president to do so. As foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead notes: "President Obama likes to hedge. If he puts four chips on black, he almost immediately wants to put three chips on red."
Lizza gives a detailed account of how Obama and his advisers have been putting chips on black and red in Egypt and Libya over the past two months. And he provides a revealing summing up. "One of his advisers described the president's actions in Libya as 'leading from behind,'" he writes.
"It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world."
"That's not," Lizza, who often writes on domestic politics, interjects, "a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic National Convention." No, it's not. But it's one you may hear about from Republicans.