David Brooks: Cats and dogs resemble foreign policy leadership

When he was in the middle of his Syrian peace deal negotiations, Secretary of State John Kerry would go to President Barack Obama with a request: Could the U.S. quietly send a few cruise missiles to hit Assad regime targets, just to send a message and maybe move the Syrian president toward a deal.

"Kerry's looking like a chump with the Russians, because he has no leverage," a senior administration official told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.

Obama continually said no and eventually grew impatient. Goldberg asked Kerry if he thought he had more of a bias toward action than Obama. "I do probably," Kerry responded. "I'd say that I think we've had a very symbiotic, synergistic, whatever you call it, relationship which works very effectively. Because I'll come in with a bias toward 'Let's try to do this, let's try to do that, let's get this done.'"

The new Goldberg essay is a profound and comprehensive look at Obama's foreign policy thinking, and especially his steadfast desire to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

But it's also fascinating to read in the midst of a presidential campaign. It shows how insanely far removed campaign bloviation is from the reality of actually governing. It also reveals that the performance of presidents, especially on foreign policy, is shaped by how leaders attach to problems. Some leaders are like dogs: They want to bound right in and make things happen. Some are more like cats: They want to detach and maybe look for a pressure point here or there.


If we want to understand the dog or catlike qualities in candidates, we should be asking them a different set of questions:

How much do you think a president can change the flow of world events?

Obama, for example, has a limited or, if you want to put it that way, realistic view of the extent of U.S. influence. He subscribes to a series of propositions that frequently push him toward nonintervention: The world "is a tough, complicated, messy, mean place and full of hardship and tragedy," he told Goldberg. You can't fix everything. Sometimes you can only shine a spotlight.

Furthermore, Obama argues, because of our history, U.S. military efforts are looked at with suspicion. Allies are unreliable. Ukraine is always going to be in Russia's sphere of influence, so its efforts there will always trump ours. The Middle East is a morass and no longer that important to U.S. interests.

Even the Iran nuclear deal is seen as a limited endeavor — not to reshape the Middle East but simply to make a dangerous country less dangerous.

Do you think out loud in tandem with a community, or do you process internally?

Throughout the Goldberg article, Obama is seen thinking deeply and subtly, but apart from the group around him. In catlike fashion, he is a man who knows his own mind and trusts his own judgment. His decision not to bomb Syria after it crossed the chemical weapons red line was made almost entirely alone. His senior advisers were shocked when he announced it. The secretaries of state and defense were not in the room.

More generally, Obama expresses disdain with the foreign policy community. He is critical of most of his fellow world leaders — impatient with most European ones, fed up with most Middle Eastern ones.


When seeking a description of a situation, does your mind leap for the clarifying single truth or do you step back to see the complex web of factors?

Ronald Reagan typified the single clarifying truth habit of mind, both when he was describing an enemy (Evil Empire) and when he was calling for change (tear down this wall). In his interviews with Goldberg, Obama leans to the other side of the spectrum. He is continually stepping back, starting with analyses of human nature, how people behave when social order breaks down, the roots and nature of tribalism.

Do you see international affairs as a passionate struggle or a conversation and negotiation?

Obama shows a continual distrust of passion. He doesn't see much value in macho bluffing or chest-thumping, or in lofty Churchillian rhetoric, or in bombings done in the name of "credibility." He may be critical, but he is not a hater. He doesn't even let anger interfere with his appraisal of Vladimir Putin, praising him for being courteous and businesslike. Because fear distorts judgment, he seeks to place the threat of terrorism in its proper perspective: More Americans die from falling in bathtubs.

Personally, I don't think there is one correct answer to whether we want a dog or a cat as leader. Depends on the situation; there are successful examples of both types. But I'm struck by how catlike Obama is. And it's striking how many Americans have responded by going for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are bad versions of the bounding in/we-can-change-everything doggy type.

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.

What To Read Next
Get Local