I was asked by a friend to comment on the US shutdown, which is still underway with the outcome not yet clear. I declined; everything I hear about the shutdown is second- or third-hand at the very least, which makes it difficult to judge just what is actually going on. Certainly, President Obama seems to be struggling desperately, even to the point of damaging the long-term stability of the American Government as a whole. The trust lost by federal agencies such as the National Park Service will not be regained in a hurry, if at all.
But there is one aspect of politics that, I feel, has played a major role in this disaster – and in many others. That is the fear of being seen to fail.
One of the simplest problems with being President, or Prime Minister, or any other world leader is that you are expected to be perfect. Everyone on the outside of your government will carp and criticise and suggest, very loudly, that whatever the current problem is wouldn’t have happened if THEY were in the big chair. No, sir! This is, of course, abject nonsense. It is very rare for a government to shift course totally even after an election replaces the previous party with someone new. The newcomers still have to grapple with the same problem.
What this tends to mean is that governments tend to refuse to admit their mistakes openly.
It is a truism that applies far outside the military that no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. Things can and do go wrong. The minute you put your plan into operation, you are exposed to the whims of both enemy action and random chance, both of which will work against you. The difference between a successful commander and an unsuccessful one is the ability to react, adapt and overcome the various unexpected challenges that will be placed in your path.
And, no matter what you do, failure is an option.
This is largely ignored by media talking heads and politicians. Whenever something is started, the possibility exists that it will fail, no matter what the person in charge does. I do not set out to lose the endless games of chess I play. But if I assume that I just can’t lose, I will probably lose quite badly. And, even if I do lose, I will learn from the experience.
However, politicians often feel that they don’t have that option. Their enemies will make sure that they bear the blame for any failures that take place on their watch. The slightest setback will be branded a total failure.
When Iraq was invaded, it rapidly became clear to everyone apart from the Bush Administration and Blair’s government that an insurgency was underway. However, the presence of this insurgency proved that pre-war planning (insofar as we can dignify it with that term) was hopelessly optimistic. Naturally, Rumsfeld (who bore a large part of the blame for the US side of this failure) couldn’t admit this openly, with the net result that opportunities to stop the insurgency before it really got going were lost. But then, openly admitting that this had gone wrong would have seriously damaged his career.
What moved President Bush from an acceptable President to a good President was his willingness to try to fix this problem. Tony Blair earned a place in infamy through failing to even admit that there was a problem, at least until it was far too late. Blair, I suspect, reasoned that if he confessed that there was a problem, he would likely be unseated by rebels in the Labour Party. This fear of being seen to fail haunted his thinking and made it impossible for him to try to correct his mistakes.
It is impossible for me to say with any certainty what President Obama is thinking just now. However, I think that Obama is reluctant to admit failure, let alone try to fix the problem.
I simply do not know enough about his healthcare plans to say with any confidence if they are good or bad for America. (The NHS in the UK has been very much a mixed bag and, believe me, anyone who can afford it goes private.) It seems clear, however, that his plan to introduce the system has failed. Nor is this the greatest problem currently facing America and the West.
Instead of conceding defeat, Obama seems bent on brinkmanship that will resonate through the American political system for long after he has left the White House. This is the spawn of a system that makes it impossible to admit that something has gone wrong – and places wishful thinking over sober analysis. Is this the hope and change you were expecting?