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Obama's Foreign Policy: The First Two Years
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Ryan Lizza has an article in the current edition of the New
Yorker about how the uprisings in North Africa have remade President
Obama's foreign policy.
The article examines the disagreements between the State Department,
Defense Department and the White House and the conflicting priorities of
the so-called idealists and realists within the administration.
Last month, Lizza traveled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to
Cairo and Tunisia. He's a Washington correspondent for the New Yorker
and profiled Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Ryan Lizza, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I want to start with the very end
of your article. Your article ends by quoting an advisor to Obama,
describing President Obama's leadership style as leading from behind.
This phrase has really been reverberating on the Internet in ways that
you maybe didn't expect.
Mr. RYAN LIZZA (Washington Correspondent, The New Yorker Magazine): Yes.
GROSS: So what did you - what did that advisor mean by that phrase? How
did you interpret it - leading from behind - when you published it?
Mr. LIZZA: The way that the president approached Libya is a great
example of what his advisor described as leading from behind. Since the
end of the Cold War, one of the fundamental facts about international
relations has been a growing backlash against the biggest actor in the
world, and that is the United States.
And that really peaked in the Bush era, and so when Obama and his team
came into office, this was something that they were acutely aware of,
that the U.S. had to operate in the world in a way that didn't foment,
backlash, and especially, of all places, in the Middle East.
And so when they approached what to do about Libya, when they approached
the question of could and should the United States intervene militarily
in another Muslim country, how could we do it without it seeming like
Iraq, or like any of the other places in the Middle East where our
presence is hurting our reputation?
And that's where leading from behind comes in. It's actually - I've
learned this subsequently, through the beauty of the Internet, that
another person, another leader who's used the term leading from behind
is Nelson Mandela.
A lot of people on the right have interpreted this as not leading. And I
don't think that that's what this advisor meant by it, and I certainly
don't think that's what Obama did in the case of Libya. What it means is
getting other actors out front, not stamping the intervention in Libya
with the American brand.
GROSS: So give us an example from the Obama administration's approach to
taking action in Libya, something that exemplifies leading from behind.
Mr. LIZZA: Well, I would say: One, making sure - really highlighting and
emphasizing the fact that Arab states were calling for interventions,
specifically the Arab League.
But if you look at what the Arab League and other Arab states were
asking for, is they were asking for a no-fly zone. If you look closely
at what the United States pushed for, it was not a no-fly zone. The
Obama administration determined that a no-fly zone would be useless.
Simply preventing Gadhafi's airplanes from being in the air would do
nothing to save Benghazi.
And what they actually did is they went to the U.N. and they took a
resolution that was being proposed by the U.K. and the French, and they
said this won't do it. We need a resolution that gives us all necessary
means - U.N. language for any military force that's required - to save
So they moved - you know, to put it one way, they moved the entire
debate in a more interventionist, more militaristic direction. And yet
at the same time, they didn't really highlight that. I mean, they were
really quiet about it. A lot of accounts in the press barely pointed
And, you know, I think a lot of Americans are used to the president
making a big, splashy announcement at the White House when we do
something like this, and they determined - they did it in an a sort of
stealth, quiet way, emphasizing Arab leadership, Arab requests,
multilateralism, all the rest.
GROSS: Arab League support.
Mr. LIZZA: Arab League support. And frankly, there was a lot of
criticism from the right that, oh, the French, how could we let the
French be leading on this? And I think to some of Obama's advisors,
that's not the worst thing in the world.
Their view is that they inherited a United States that was economically
weaker, militarily dragged down by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
that burden-sharing was something that they should look forward to and
not something that, in some way, demeans the United States.
And I think that's what you're seeing in this debate since that quote
has become public. There's a lot of people on the right who feel like
leading from behind is not leading.
GROSS: Yes, well, let me just read a quote that exemplifies this, and
this is a quote from John Podhoretz in the conservative political
publication Commentary. He writes: The crystallizing phrase leading from
behind may not be something you'll see on a sign at the 2012 Democratic
convention, but it will almost certainly be in the acceptance speech of
the nominee of the Republican Party at its 2012 convention, and will be
through in Obama's face during the presidential debates by his GOP rival
and will be the centerpiece of the critique of Obamaism going forward.
It's so revealing, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if the White
House goes on a hunt to find the person who said it in order to
defenestrate him before he does more colossal damage to his boss'
chances of reelection. Leading from behind - oh, boy.
So that's the quote.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LIZZA: That's a quote, and that's been a common reaction of a lot of
conservatives. And I do think it's very - it does crystallize the
different ways that Republicans and Democrats view foreign policy.
And a lot of Republicans believe that the United States - that worrying
about backlash and worrying about resentment of how the U.S. acts in the
world, that's overrated, and that's not really a problem. The Obama
administration takes it very seriously.
So I did - I think I knew that that quote was going to cause a bit of a
fuss, because it really gets at something very central to the way that
the two parties view foreign policy.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza, and he's
the Washington correspondent for the New Yorker. We're talking about his
new article in the New Yorker "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring
Remade Obama's Foreign Policy."
So let's continue with Libya, here. You say Libya's the first major
issue that Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Robert Gates,
secretary of defense, disagreed. What was their disagreement about?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, Gates, as he said publicly, that Libya was not in the
vital interest of the United States. And if it's not in the vital
interest, then you have the question of: Well, you have a humanitarian
crisis on our hands, the crisis being that Gadhafi's forces were on the
outskirts of Benghazi, and Gadhafi and his sons were publicly saying
that they were going to go house to house to find these rebels.
So you had a pretty convincing case that there was a - that an imminent
massacre was going to take place. And if you're Bob Gates, you know,
the world is a very ugly place, where lots of bad things happen, and
it's not the United States' job to intervene every time something like
that happens, even if we can.
Clinton comes out of a very different tradition. One of the things that
the Bill Clinton White House was known for was its development of a
policy of humanitarian intervention, and I think one of the things that
both Clintons are extremely tormented by are the cases where they didn't
intervene, specifically Rwanda.
Anyway, this is something, I think, something for - in sort of - in
Clinton - in Hillary Clinton's blood, and she - as did other people in
the Obama administration - made a powerful case that even though Libya
was not in our vital interest, even though Libya is not, you know, Saudi
Arabia, for instance, or a place where we have deep ties or economic
interests, we had a responsibility to protect the citizens of Benghazi,
And that, you know, that was the - as clear-cut a case as you can get
between idealists and realists, although I will say this: There was
another argument that was made by Clinton and others and like-minded
officials, and that is what's going on in the wider Middle East, this
uprising - this, you know, this democratic uprising - is impacted by how
the United States acts in every country.
And it's important for the United States to be standing with this
democratic movement, and that by siding with the rebels and even
intervening militarily, that sent a message to other countries on whose
side we were in this broader battle that's going on. And that is,
indeed, in our interests.
GROSS: Now, the U.N. resolution that you referred to earlier is the
first time that the U.N. authorized military action to preempt an
imminent massacre. Would you say that Hillary Clinton won this debate
over Robert Gates in terms of what to do in Libya?
Mr. LIZZA: I do. Although I think as I reported this out, I think that
the - you know, it's much less a - which Hillary Clinton pushed anyone
into this, but that Barack Obama made this decision, and that, you know,
the crucial player here is not any single member of his Cabinet, but is
the president himself. Because it was the president who was presented
with - essentially, there was a very important meeting where he got an
intelligence briefing about the situation on the ground in Libya.
And at that point, he was told that Gadhafi's troops were about to take
a city not far from Benghazi. And as soon as they took that city, they
would be able to cut off the fuel and water to Benghazi, and that
Benghazi being the sort of home, the sort of capital of the rebellion,
that everything - the whole, you know, the whole situation would be over
within 48 hours. And what he would do in Benghazi did not - you know,
wasn't going to be pretty.
And so the president asked: Well, okay, the solution to this problem
that's on the table at the U.N. right now is a no-fly zone. Is that
going to stop the situation that you guys just outlined to me? And he
was told no. It wouldn't do anything.
GROSS: In part because Gadhafi was using tanks, not - more than planes.
Mr. LIZZA: He was using tanks. And Gadhafi was watching the
international debate, right. He was watching the world debate a no-fly
zone. So he wasn't using planes anymore because he realized at any
minute, the U.N. could decide to bomb his air defenses and take out his
You know, so no-fly zones simply became a moot point as he closed in on
Benghazi. So the important actor really is President Obama. It's
President Obama saying we need a solution that'll actually deal with how
the situation on the ground has changed.
GROSS: And what was the new resolution?
Mr. LIZZA: The new resolution authorized all necessary means, which is
U.N. language for do whatever it takes to protect the citizens. This was
so surprising - this is where we get back to the leading from behind.
So there was this 48-hour period before the U.N. resolution gets - the
new U.S. version of this resolution gets proposed, where the French and
the British were just scratching their heads, wondering what is going on
in this White House. Where is this president?
Hillary Clinton, I was with her in Paris, and she had meetings with
Sarkozy. She had meetings with representatives of the rebels, from
Libya. And they left these meetings, and both - you know, both Sarkozy
and the rebels were pushing for this U.N. resolution. And she didn't
have an official U.S. position yet. The White House was still divided on
So the whole world was, at this moment, Terry, was sort of waiting for
what the United States was going to decide on this issue. And finally,
the decision is made, and they go to the U.N., and instead of supporting
what's on the table, they expand the resolution greatly.
So the French and the British were so shocked by this, that they
actually - one of the French diplomats told me that they thought it was
a trick. They thought that the United States wasn't serious about this,
and they thought that they were expanding the resolution so that the
Chinese and the Russians and some Muslim countries would turn against
the resolution and kill it. That's how surprised they were by the way
that the United States sort of flipped in those 48 hours.
Now, they very quickly realized that that wasn't the case, that the
United States government did a sort of all-out diplomatic offensive to
pass the new resolution. But that's how fast the situation changed.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ryan Lizza. He's the
Washington correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, and his article in
the current edition is called "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring
Remade Obama's Foreign Policy."
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about your
article. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, a Washington correspondent for the New
Yorker magazine. We're talking about his article in the current edition
about how the uprisings in North Africa remade President Obama's foreign
When we left off, we were talking about how Obama didn't want to appear
to lead the intervention in Libya, but pushed behind the scenes for an
expanded U.N. resolution.
The Obama administration also hasn't wanted to be in the lead in the
Mr. LIZZA: Well, that's exactly right. And there is this view - and I
think this view flows partly from Obama's national security advisor, Tom
Donilon. I think it's partly from Gates, and no doubt from Obama
And just to take a step back, the view is that we have been - as Donilon
told me - overweighted in the Middle East and underweighted in what a
lot of Obama officials believe is the most important region to the
United States' future, and that is Asia.
So the grand plan of the Obama administration has been: Wind down the
war in Iraq, wind down the war in Afghanistan, and try and turn our
attention and engagement to Asia, where a lot of countries believe that
we have been, in the Bush years, we weren't focused there much.
This has been a huge priority for Hillary Clinton, for example. A lot of
her diplomacy and time has been spent engaging with Asian countries
that, for economic reasons, will be very important to our future.
And yet what has happened over the last couple of years is that instead
of this grand rebalancing, as they call it, we keep getting stuck in the
Middle East. And, you know, that's one of the ways in which the
president's plan on his first day in office has been, in some ways,
thwarted by events on the ground.
GROSS: And a lot of people are describing the situation in Libya now as
Mr. LIZZA: As a standoff. And every week that the rebels seem like they
just can't finish the job and their gains seem to be reversed by Gadhafi
brings a new call for more help.
And Obama laid down this principle early on, that we would have no boots
on the ground, that our own role would be extremely limited - again,
leading from behind: Let others shoulder some of the burden here.
And what's going to happen, though, is more and more, there'll be
countries that say: Well, the United States is the only one who can do
X, Y or Z, and the potential that we'll be more and more involved there.
GROSS: So a lot of your piece about President Obama's foreign policy is
about the divisions within his team between the realists and the
idealists, the idealists being the people who emphasize human rights and
democracy. And the realists are, you know, people who are asking like:
What are our interests in the country? What's the endgame? Do we really
want to commit militarily here?
So some people have said: Well, this is really like a gender division
within the White House, with the idealists being the women like Samantha
Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter and sometimes Hillary Clinton, you know,
arguing for intervention to prevent a massacre, and the realists being
the men. Do you see a gender division in the White House?
Mr. LIZZA: I was very skeptical of that analysis going into the piece,
but it did come up. It did come up on a couple of occasions, you know,
this gendered argument about some of the male members of the team being
more interested in hard power and great power relationships and some of
the female members of the team being much more conversant in soft power
and relationships - not just with states, but with societies.
And look, this came - you know, what I report in this piece is this
argument was openly discussed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, who is head of
policy planning at the State Department. And she gave a speech on her
last day at the State Department, her farewell speech.
And she made exactly the argument that I just recited. She said that
there was a gender divide between the realists and the idealists,
between the people who think and talk mostly in terms of U.S. interests
and those who think and talk more in terms of U.S. values.
So, look, I talked to people at the White House about this, and, you
know, they told me this was outlandish. And so it's a very difficult
accusation to get to the bottom of.
GROSS: So, you know, meanwhile, we've been talking about Libya. Syria is
erupting now. There have been massive protests. Hundreds of people have
been killed by the military. The military is remaining loyal - so far,
anyways - to President Bashar al-Assad. And the president has been more
brutal, I think, than a lot of people expected.
So, again, the Obama administration is faced with a really difficult
decision about what, if anything, to do in Syria. So do you think that
the calculus here is different from what the calculus has been in other
countries? Are the divisions within the Obama administration the same?
Mr. LIZZA: Obama's view of Syria and Iran, two countries that are allied
with one another, his theory was that Assad was probably a reasonable
person. Assad is this Western-educated - he speaks fluent French and
For 11 years in office, we've - people have constantly made the argument
that as bad as the Syrian regime is, Assad himself may be someone who
you can peel away from Iran, who you can engage with and get him to
align more with the West.
And so the big priority in Syria has been to restart Israel-Syrian peace
negotiations, and it has been to peel away Assad from his Iranian
That strategy is, you know, has basically ended now. I mean, you can't -
you know, it's very hard to do that with a regime that is shooting its
people in the streets.
GROSS: My guest Ryan Lizza will be back in the second half of the show.
His article, "The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring Remade Obama's
Foreign Policy," is in the current edition of the New Yorker.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ryan Lizza. We're
talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker,
about how the uprisings in North Africa have remade President Obama's
foreign policy. The article also examines disagreements within the Obama
administration about intervention. Lizza is a Washington correspondent
for The New Yorker.
You traveled with Secretary of State Clinton last month to Cairo and
Tunisia, and this was after the uprisings, just after the uprisings.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And let's talk about Egypt. Hillary Clinton was scheduled to meet
with one of the youth revolutionary groups and they boycotted the
meeting with her.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. This was really fascinating, Terry. These guys - and
these were very important actors. They were the - you know, they're
sometimes just known as the Coalition. But they really were the young
leaders who are credited with starting the revolution in Egypt. And what
I was fascinated to learn is how closely they watched and listened to
what American officials said about what they were doing. And this is
really, really important, because I think one of the very valid
criticisms of the Obama administration is that when President Obama came
into office he was extremely sensitive to the idea of the U.S. meddling
or interfering with these kinds of movements abroad.
And I think that instinct - there's something very valid about it
because very often regime's use U.S. support for these movements - to
crush the movement. Right? But I think he may have done it to a fault
and I found in the course of reporting that there was some regret of
over the handling of the Iranian revolution, for instance. That they
thought that Obama's posture of noninterference went too far, to the
points where we didn't actually show that it could have been helpful if
we showed a little bit more support to the Democratic protesters.
So in Egypt, they had, in a sense, a chance to get that balance right.
And I learned when I was in Egypt talking to these protesters, that that
really mattered to people on the ground. It really was important to
them, where the United States stood. Now Egypt's a different case, of
course, because the United States was Mubarak's friend so that was, you
know, it was crucial to know whether we were going to stand with Mubarak
or stand with the protesters in Tahrir Square. And so these young
protesters decided that Hillary Clinton's statement, very early on in
the protests, she made a statement that the Mubarak regime is stable.
Now objectively, it wasn't an incorrect statement - the Mubarak regime
was stable. But the protesters, this was burned into their memories as
Hillary Clinton supporting the Mubarak regime. And that was the reason
they cited most often to me, or at least the four members of the
coalition who I met with who boycotted her meeting, that was reason that
they cited for boycotting her meeting. Interesting â yeah.
GROSS: And then you told that to Hillary Clinton. What did she have to
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. Yeah because I â so I was meeting with these guys at the
same time she was meeting with other members of civil society. So she
was upstairs in her meeting and these guys were meeting downstairs -
boycotting her meeting with me and a couple of other reporters. She was
really sort of realistic about it. I mean she pointed out that she was
involved with protest movements when she was younger. She talked about
her work against the Vietnam War and how in every revolution, every
protest, there are people who take absolutist positions and boycott this
or that meeting. She didn't really seem too bothered about it, to be
And she, you know, she very pointedly said, you know, Ryan, the people
who start revolutions are not necessarily the same people who go on to
run the country. And her takeaway - one of the things that came up in
our interview, I interviewed her the following day when she was in
Tunisia. Her take away was she was very worried about what was going on
in terms of the transition in Cairo, because a lot - there's no recent
history of political engagement, of party building, and the people that
she met with, she found very disorganized and not quite ready for the
elections that were coming. And she was very worried about that, and
partly because the one group that is very organized is the Muslim
GROSS: I heard an interview on MORNING EDITION this week, with Mohamed
ElBaradei who is running for president, but says he's not going to run
if the democratic infrastructure falls apart. And he's concerned that
there's not enough time for new parties to pull together, that the
election is really coming a little too soon.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. That's a big concern. That's a big concern and the
folks that could most take advantage of quick elections are the Muslim
Brotherhood or the old party - members of Mubarak's old party. And, you
know, just one other antidote from that trip that I thought was so
revealing about the way that folks in that region of the world see our
statesmen, and that is that I sat there with these four young people and
one of them was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood...
GROSS: These are one of the revolutionary youth - yeah.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. The - one of the members of the protest movement. One of
them was described - two of them described themselves as liberals. One
of them described himself as a Marxist. And one as a member of the
Muslim Brotherhood. And I asked this young man from the Muslim
Brotherhood, if Barack Obama were upstairs right now would you meet with
him? And his face lit up and he said yes, I would. And they saw, and all
four of them saw Obama's public statements as getting it right. They saw
his statement when - especially when he said that Mubarak - that the
transition, I don't know if you remember this, but at one point Obama
said the transition needs to happen now and that was a very encouraging
sign. But anyway, their take away from Obama's handling of the crisis
was that he was on their side.
Now for my reporting, I frankly don't think that Secretary Clinton and
Obama were very far apart on this issue, but these public statements
stick in people's minds. And it did strike me - we talked a lot about
this when Obama was a candidate - about how just having a guy name
Barack Hussein Obama, an African-American with that name, that that
itself would have a big influence on the way that people in that region
of the world see us. And that came through in some of my conversations
with these activists. That they can relate to Obama in a way that they
haven't related to previous American presidents, and that they certainly
related to him more during that crisis than they did with Secretary
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza. His article in the current edition of The
New Yorker is about how the uprisings in North Africa remade President
Obama's foreign policy.
We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ryan Lizza, Washington correspondent for The New
Yorker. His article in the current edition is about how the uprisings in
North Africa have remade President Obama's foreign policy.
How much credit do you think United States takes - the Obama
administration takes - for pushing Mubarak out of office? Do you
remember that speech in Tahrir Square where everybody thought he was
going to resign?
Mr. LIZZA: Yes. Yeah.
GROSS: Everybody was prepared for him stepping down, you know, I got to
leave and he didn't.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And then he left shortly afterwards. But it was such a bizarre
speech and he was so confusing in that speech.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And everybody, of course, was wondering what's the Obama
administration doing with him behind the scenes? I'd love to know what
went on in those hours.
Mr. LIZZA: And so here's...
GROSS: Do you have any idea?
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Here's what I was able to piece together because I had
the exact same questions. What my understanding is that there were
people in the Obama administration who were very hung up on a sort of
technical matter, and that is the Egyptian Constitution. So if the
United States really, early on, pushed hard for Mubarak to resign this
document, which I don't think anyone was really an expert on until this
crisis, and didn't really seem to matter much - the Egyptian
Constitution - it called for the speaker of the Egyptian parliament to
take over the presidency.
Well, it turns out that the speaker of the Egyptian parliament is a
pretty bad guy and the Obama administration was, you know, horrified by
the idea that this guy would suddenly become president of Egypt. It
didn't seem that that's what the protesters in Tahrir Square wanted and
it didn't seem like it was in anyone's interest to do that. So they were
looking for a solution that would essentially keep Mubarak as president
where you could have his signature to change the constitution or to
implement whatever scheme you needed to implement to get a transitional
government set up.
And that, early on, seemed was sort of the favored position of many of
the members of the administration. And this was frankly, something that
Mubarak was saying to American officials and that he was pushing as
well. He was telling them look, I can't resign because this guy is going
to take over and you don't want that guy to take over. And so when he
gave that speech, if you read it carefully, it was this meandering
strange speech. But embedded in that speech are a couple of lines when
Mubarak does sort of hint at this constitutional issue and he hints at
how he's going to stick around a little longer to make the necessary
changes. But that's not how it came out and that's not how the
protesters in Tahrir heard it. And so as their demands became more
maximalist, as the protesters in Tahrir Square, as their demands became
more maximalist and they demanded his resignation, it became
increasingly untenable for the Obama administration to pursue this sort
of soft landing for Mubarak where he is technically president but sort
of helps implement this nice smooth transition to democracy.
And Obama made the decision, basically after watching Mubarak's speech
during a national security meeting at the White House, that he was going
to call Mubarak, sort of take his temperature, and then make his own
And I got a pretty lengthy readout on his call with Mubarak, at least
President Obama's side of the call. And he went back and forth with
Mubarak, you know, can you make these constitutional changes? You know,
can you set up a transitional government? And the feeling from the White
House was that Mubarak simply wasn't going to be responsive. He didn't
understand how serious that the protesters were. He didn't understand
the pressure he was under. And I think that's the moment where they sort
of abandoned Mubarak to a certain extent. And abandon may be a...
GROSS: When they abandoned Mubarak...
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...then what?
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. And so that's the...
GROSS: Did they say to him you've got to go or else?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, this is a really important question, Terry -
historically. And my understanding is that on that phone call the
president of the United States never told Mubarak you immediately have
to resign. Now remember, at that point, they had already asked him to
announce that he would not run for president. So they had accomplished
that and they did push them towards that. But the White House's view of
Obama's last phone call with Mubarak, is that the president - while not
using the words you have to resign as president - all but told Mubarak
that that was the message they were sending. I think it's a little bit -
little, slightly opaque but certainly the readout I have from that call
is that that's the signal that they were sending. That you need -
there's got to be a graceful way, that just announcing that you're not
going to run for reelection isn't enough, that the protesters in Tahrir
Square are demanding more and we need to find a solution that pushes you
off the stage.
Now, what accomplished that I think in a much more dramatic fashion was
the public statement that Obama made after he talked to Mubarak. And he
says that the transition needs to begin now. Now that doesn't sound like
much, but in the Middle East that was an earthquake. And as one State
Department official told me, the people around Mubarak got extremely
angry after that statement and they interpreted this as a real break
between Obama and Mubarak.
And the Saudi's and other regional allies interpreted this as a very
aggressive statement. If you're Saudi Arabia, you're sitting there
thinking wow, the United States just overthrew a friend of 30 years. If
we get into trouble will they do that to us, as well.
GROSS: Obama has been described as not having a foreign policy doctrine.
Mr. LIZZA: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Some people think that's a good thing. Means he's flexible.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: And other people think that's a bad thing. It means he hasn't
thought it through. He doesn't have a system. He doesn't have a context.
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: The title of your article is "The Consequentialist," which is how
some of his aides have described his foreign policy style. He's a
Mr. LIZZA: Yes.
GROSS: So what does that mean?
Mr. LIZZA: Well, it basically means that he wants to do what works,
right? He doesn't care about whether it's realist or idealist. It's - at
the end of the day what are the consequences of the actions and what are
the effects? That effects matter more than ideology. And you're so right
about this view of doctrine and whether it's good to have a doctrine or
bad to have a doctrine.
I talked to a lot of people, you know, about this to sort of get some,
you know, some sort of historical perspective on whether doctrines are
good or bad for presidents. You know, on the one hand you'll find people
who say doctrines are the worst thing. As soon as you lay down a
doctrine you're hemming yourself in. You're limiting your choices. You
don't, you know - you don't want to lay down doctrines. You don't want
to lay down ironclad rules for how the U.S. operates in the world
because that will, you know, that will put a straitjacket on your
ability to maneuver.
Other folks say, well, you have to have some broad principles, you know
- whether you call it a doctrine or not - you have to have something
that â some compass that guides your foreign policy, otherwise
everything is ad hoc and how you act in one case doesn't relate well to
how you act in another case.
GROSS: Ryan Lizza is a Washington correspondent for The New Yorker. His
article about how the Arab Spring remade President Obama's foreign
policy is in the current edition. You'll find a link to it on our
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Emmylou Harris: An Invigorating, Inviting 'Hard Bargain'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Emmylou Harris' new album
"Hard Bargain." She first came to prominence in the early '70s for her
work with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Her new album includes a
new song about her days with Parsons, as well as a tribute to her late
friend, the singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle.
This is one of her new songs from the album. It's called "Home Sweet
(Soundbite of song, "Home Sweet Home")
Ms. EMMYLOU HARRIS (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I live out here, in
the wind and the pouring rain. (unintelligible) 14,000 (unintelligible).
In the summer...
KEN TUCKER: Emmylou Harris sings with a steadfast purity that can be
starkly beautiful. It can also be coldly distancing. Over the years, her
public image has coalesced around the idea of a serene singer-songwriter
whose elegance and wisdom is signaled by her immaculate, silver-gray
One thing I'm trying to say here is that it takes a lot to get a rise
out of Emmylou, but producer Jay Joyce has succeeded. You can hear it in
the way he's collaborated with her on a song such as "New Orleans," a
rare flood-tide of emotion set to a drum-slamming up-beat rare for
Harris, and welcome.
(Soundbite of song, "New Orleans")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) My Lord, how the rains came down. Water's been a
mighty sign(ph). When the levies broke that day, washing all those souls
away. (unintelligible) We took you to a (unintelligible).
It takes it more than a hurricane (unintelligible) Pontratrain. Oh, we
broke the chains in New Orleans, New Orleans.
TUCKER: Harris is in a nostalgic mood in "The Road," a song addressed to
Gram Parsons, with whom she made a couple of excellent albums, "Grievous
Angel" and "Sleepless Nights." Parsons recognized that her surging
harmonies worked well in contrast to his own baleful croon. For her
part, Harris acknowledges in "The Road" that Parsons pushed her to be
more daring in every way.
(Soundbite of song, "The Road")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I can still remember every song you played, long
ago when we were younger and we rocked the night away. How could I see a
future then, where you would not grow old? With such a fire in our
bellies, such a hunger in our souls.
I guess I probably lost, lost control of the time. It seemed that we
were traveling near some old lucky sign. I know I didn't see it, and no
one was to blame, but the road we shared together once will never be the
TUCKER: "The Road" is one of two songs on this album addressed to a
friend who's gone. The other is "Darlin' Kate," a fond farewell to the
great singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer last year.
Harris' choice of poetic language may verge on the trite - even "The
Simpsons" and Ronald Reagan have appropriated John Gillespie Magee's
phrase: slipped the surly bonds of Earth. But it's the ache in Harris'
voice that delivers the true emotion.
(Soundbite of song, "Darlin' Kate")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) So the time had come, you had left this world. But
we'll miss our Kate, our darlin' one. We held your hand, kissed your
lovely brow and bid farewell.
You're sailing now, free from the pain. You laid that burden down, while
your strong and giving heart will surely be your command, as you slip
the surely bonds of earth and sail away. Perhaps we will meet again
somehow someday. Until then, there's nothing we can do but wait to see
once more our darlin' Kate.
TUCKER: "Hard Bargain" is certainly the most eclectic and loose-fitting
album Emmylou Harris has made in a long time. There are weak spots on
this album. Her song about Emmett Till doesn't work as either folk-blues
or as social commentary. The plaintive "Lonely Girl" is Harris in a
drippy moment. But give her a song as crisp and direct as Ron Sexsmith's
title tune, and Harris can still pay off on a musical hard bargain.
(Soundbite of song, "Hard Bargain")
Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I'm a bit run down, but I'm okay. Just feel like
calling it a day. But you send me back to the start. You drive a hard
TUCKER: At this point in her career, Harris is a sacrosanct folkie
madonna - a small-m madonna, to be sure. She'll always have her devoted
core following that values her mannerliness and purity. But an album as
lively as "Hard Bargain" deserves a wider audience. It benefits, I'm
guessing, from having been recorded in just one month. It's less fussy,
more invigorating and inviting than most of what Harris has sung since
she first started out with Gram Parsons.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "Hard Bargain," the new album from Emmylou Harris. You can hear
the complete album on the website: nprmusic.org.
Coming up, John Powers considers the legacy of writer David Foster
Wallace, who took his life two-and-a-half years ago.
This is FRESH AIR.
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David Foster Wallace: An Ordinary Guy Who Couldn't Be
TERRY GROSS, host:
The critically acclaimed American writer David Foster Wallace committed
suicide in September 2008. In the two-and-a-half years since his death,
publishers have released for unusual posthumous books under his name,
including his unfinished novel "The Pale King," which was just
Our critic-at-large John Powers is reading "The Pale King," and says
it's gotten him thinking about why people can't seem to get enough of
JOHN POWERS: Writers love to grumble about the popularity of self-help
books, yet like everyone else, they're always looking for someone who
will teach them how to live. Just think of all those guys who learned
masculinity from Hemingway or those classy-sounding books of titles like
"How Proust Can Change Your Life" or "How to Live: A Life of Montaigne."
One who seemed to know life's secret was David Foster Wallace, whose
suicide, oddly enough, only enhanced his stature as a sage. Whether or
not he was the most important American writer of his era, he's certainly
the one who inspired the deepest affection in life, and who, in death,
has come to be seen as something of a literary saint. Even those who
don't actually like his writing like the idea of him - enough so that
publishers keep releasing posthumous books.
The latest is "The Pale King," an unfinished novel about the IRS,
boredom and the mind-killing horror of bureaucracy. Skillfully stitched
together by his editor, the novel has some superb sections - for
instance, a tenderly observant story about two young Christians dealing
with an unwanted pregnancy. Then again, some parts are so dull, we
assume that, had Wallace lived, he surely would have cut or improved
It's a reasonable assumption. Wallace was an amazing writer whose head
was exploding with perceptions, ideas, facts - and doubts about those
perceptions, ideas and facts, which is why his writing is thicketed with
brainy, sometimes hilarious footnotes. Reading him, you feel engaged
with a mind that is itself engaged with the fundamental question of the
modern condition - how to be sane and compassionate in the face of daily
life's often overwhelming craziness or tedium. That's the explicit theme
of "This is Water," the text of his acclaimed 2005 commencement address
at Kenyon College, a small classic of American literature that actually
is a kind of self-help book.
Most readers prefer Wallace's journalistic pieces, many of which filled
me with envy at their originality. He had a staggering eye for detail,
an ability to make startling connections and a mind that was never
He wrote brilliant and admiring pieces on David Lynch, Roger Federer and
John McCain - not exactly your ordinary egghead trifecta. When Gourmet
magazine sent him to cover the Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace covered
it splendidly, but he startled the editors by turning in a piece that
made eating a lobster seem kind of, well, wrong. It's still the best
piece I've read about the morality of eating meat, best because it's not
preachy. Wallace himself ate and enjoyed meat, but he makes us think,
really think, about what it actually means to do so.
If his journalism goes down easy as ice cream, his fiction was always
demanding, especially "Infinite Jest," a huge dystopian vision of the
near future that set the standard for a whole literary generation. Here
was the landmark novel other writers wanted to emulate or top - or maybe
tear down. Where many of his peers wrote books that felt dinky, Wallace
strove to capture the very essence of our time: the information
overload, the power of big institutions to deform our souls, and the way
- in a world of seemingly endless possibilities - we can become
imprisoned inside our restless brains, aimlessly shuffling thoughts and
worries and dreams of escape.
Now, Wallace's fiction isn't always enjoyable. It often reminds me of
the films of Jean-Luc Godard, which can bore you comatose one minute and
then, moments later, wow you with an epiphany that forever changes your
way of thinking. Although his novels aren't emotionally satisfying like
those of his friend Jonathan Franzen - the crowd pleasing Truffaut to
his radical Godard - he was his generation's genius, the voice other
writers heard in their heads.
This may make him sound pretentious. Yet the reason people loved and
still revere him is that he wasn't. He wasn't Olympian like Nabokov,
self-promoting like Mailer or reclusive like Salinger. He had a
reputation - rare among famous writers - as a decent guy who genuinely
cared about being good. He also cared about truth.
That's why he disliked being treated as a guru or prophet or saint. He
never pretended to know all the answers. In fact, with his scruffy
beard, bandanna and informal manner, Wallace seemed to want nothing more
than to be a regular American, just like you and me. It was always his
blessing and his curse that he couldn't be.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. You'll find
links to nonfiction pieces by David Foster Wallace on our website,
I'm Terry Gross.
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