Sometimes you take a shot.
Yesterday evening I was interviewing Barack Obama and we were talking about effective foreign aid programs in Africa. His voice was measured and fatigued, and he was taking those little pauses candidates take when they’re afraid of saying something that might hurt them later on.
Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”
Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”
So I asked, What do you take away from him?
“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away ... the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch.
On the one hand, Obama hates, as Niebuhr certainly would have, the grand Bushian rhetoric about ridding the world of evil and tyranny and transforming the Middle East. But he also dislikes liberal muddle-headedness on power politics. In “The Audacity of Hope,” he says liberal objectives like withdrawing from Iraq, stopping AIDS and working more closely with our allies may be laudable, “but they hardly constitute a coherent national security policy.”
In Chicago this week, Obama argued against the current tides of Democratic opinion. There’s been a sharp rise in isolationism among Democrats, according to a recent Pew survey, so Obama argued for global engagement. Fewer Democrats believe in peace through military strength, so Obama argued for increasing the size of the military.
In other words, when Obama is confronted by what he sees as arrogant unilateral action, he argues for humility. When he is confronted by what he sees as dovish passivity, he argues for the hardheaded promotion of democracy in the spirit of John F. Kennedy.
The question is, aside from rejecting the extremes, has Obama thought through a practical foreign policy doctrine of his own — a way to apply his Niebuhrian instincts?
That question is hard to answer because he loves to have conversations about conversations. You have to ask him every question twice, the first time to allow him to talk about how he would talk about the subject, and the second time so you can pin him down to the practical issues at hand.
If you ask him about the Middle East peace process, he will wax rhapsodic about the need to get energetically engaged. He’ll talk about the shared interests all have in democracy and prosperity. But then when you ask him concretely if the U.S. should sit down and talk with Hamas, he says no. “There’s no point in sitting down so long as Hamas says Israel doesn’t have the right to exist.”
When you ask about ways to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he talks grandly about marshaling a global alliance. But when you ask specifically if an Iranian bomb would be deterrable, he’s says yes: “I think Iran is like North Korea. They see nuclear arms in defensive terms, as a way to prevent regime change.”
In other words, he has a tendency to go big and offer himself up as Bromide Obama, filled with grand but usually evasive eloquence about bringing people together and showing respect. Then, in a blink, he can go small and concrete, and sound more like a community organizer than George F. Kennan.
Finally, more than any other major candidate, he has a tendency to see the world in post-national terms. Whereas President Bush sees the war against radical Islam as the organizing conflict of our time, Obama sees radical extremism as one problem on a checklist of many others: global poverty, nuclear proliferation, global warming. When I asked him to articulate the central doctrine of his foreign policy, he said, “The single objective of keeping America safe is best served when people in other nations are secure and feel invested.”
That’s either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view.
"That’s either profound or vacuous, depending on your point of view."
This column's left handed diss of Obama's political philosophy is completely disingenuous. Politicians always get their job by talking, after which we find out what they really want to do, and are able to do. And what they are able to do depends on their ability to persuade, by talking.
Broder's critique of Obama's rhetoric is unambiguously vacuous. On the one hand he give him credit for having read Niebuhr, and then imply that his concrete plans for action are small and drab. I accept that Broder's not sold on Obama, but why didn't he just say it, and say why? In this column he set the Senator an impossible task, to somehow come up with concrete plans as impressive as the ideals informing those plans. Every politician will fail that test. Politics as the cliche goes, is the art of the possible -- a successful politician is one who gets some things done without betraying the high-flown words of his best intentions.
I think Americans are tired of a President with lofty ideals and extravagant, unrealistic, and disastrous implementation of those ideals. Maybe we need a community organizer now: someone to improve a few things on the ground before we try to build a shining city on the hill.