For the past two years, I’ve been working on a biography of Texas oilman George P. Mitchell, sometimes (erroneously) called “the father of fracking.” Biographies are stories of people’s lives, but they really aren’t about the “who.” “Who was George Mitchell?” is a relatively straightforward question to answer.
Many people may be drawn to a book because they want to know the “how.” “How did George Mitchell change the world by developing fracking?” is an interesting question, but if you spend two years explaining it, you realize every biography attempts to answer the far bigger and more daunting question: why? “Why did George Mitchell develop fracking?” “Why did he pioneer sustainable development at the same time?” “Why did he believe these two seemingly disparate goals went hand-in-hand?”
The why is always the most difficult question, and it’s the question that most often gets lost in shorthand discussions on social media. I don’t post a lot of political stuff for the simple reason that very rarely are we given a chance to understand the why. Too often, the why of politics is drown out by posturing, platitudes and pablum (and, more recently, pugilism).
But I recently got around to reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s excellent piece on President Obama’s foreign policy, which was published in The Atlantic back in April. It’s extremely long but incredibly insightful,thoroughly research and reported, and well-written. Rather than deal with the politics, Goldberg focuses on the policy, on Obama’s thought process and on why he’s made the foreign policy decisions he’s made. Goldberg acknowledges the criticisms, but the piece is really designed to get inside Obama’s logic. In short, it’s all about the why.
You don’t have to agree with Obama’s decisions to be interested with how he came to them. Indeed, the piece points out that even many Democrats within his own administration disagreed strongly with the president. And you might decide, after understanding his logic, that’s he dead wrong. But the point is that at least you’ll understand. Foreign policy is complicated, and the answers aren’t short or easy. The beauty of the “why” lies in unraveling the complexity.