Mathematicians and systems thinkers talk about local vs. global optima. Imagine that you are looking for the height of the highest peak. If you search for it within 100 miles of your house, you'll likely get a different height than your cousin across the country and certainly a different value than if you live at the base of Mt. Everest.
Suboptimization, focusing on a local optima, is always easier than global optimization. It is easier, for instance, to do really well in your job when you subordinate your life to work than when you subordinate your work to your whole life.
For me, one of the key differences between good and bad politics is the question of what gauge policy makers are using for the context of their decisions. Are they focusing on local optima or trying to look more globally? Are they doing what is best only for their rich and powerful peers or for the whole population? Are they making decisions based on single events or a pattern of events? Are they worried about this year's budget options or about this generation's budget options? The great leaders have a positive impact across time and borders and don't just pursue policie that work for a short time or for a small group.
This week, Obama made a policy speech in which he said that he'd attack Al Qaeda forces in Pakistan even if Pakistan's president Musharraf would not cooperate. On this surface, this makes great sense. Attack the enemy and get revenge for 9-11. Looking around for the best thing to do in response to 9-11, it is certainly a local optima. But it doesn't quite seem like a global optima.
Musharraf is no saint. He is, however, a moderating influence in a country with extremists - a Muslim country with nuclear weapons. Of late, he's had a rough time of it. Bombings, attacks, and protests have eroded his grip on the country. It is conceivable that an American attack within Pakistan without Pakistani approval could trigger an overthrow of Musharraf, might shift power to the extremists. We're not fighting the 9-11 terrorists. We're fighting extremism. We can take steps - like the invasion and occupation of Iraq - that merely fuel extremism.
President Obama might avenge the tragedy of 9-11. But he might also trigger events that would make it seem like a mere prelude to sadder times. Pursuing such a policy could easily make him seem Bush league, unable to see the mountains for the hilltops, completely missing the global optima.