Reading the President's Mind

The President's being very clear about his worldview. Is anybody listening?

By Nathan Pippenger

George Mason professor Jack Goldstone deems President Obama’s Wednesday UN speech “extraordinary,” an evaluation inspired by reflections on Goldstone’s recent trip to England:

One evening, I attended an Evensong choir service at the magnificent York minster Cathedral. There, dwarfed beneath the tallest tower and the widest nave of any medieval church in Europe, I listened to two very apt readings from scripture.

The first was from the book of Job, in which Job wails about the misery he is experiencing without reason. Job tells us that God brings misery to the just and terrible losses to good men and women, because He can do so. The second was from the gospels, detailing the crucifixion of Christ and his suffering — again the suffering of a good man who had done nothing to deserve such a fate.

So the world is full of suffering, even among good people, and God will do nothing to prevent it. A horrible, depressing pair of readings, really. And with the four horseman of the apocalypse loose in the world—Ebola (pestilence) in Africa, war in the Middle East, famine (from drought) again in the Sahel, and death visible as never before (live on YouTube-beheadings!)—they seemed all too apt.

Yet the message of these texts really is that it is up to us to deal with the terrible turns of fate that inevitably arise, and try to make something out of the challenge and suffering that redeems them […] In that context, President Obama’s speech today at the UN was extraordinary.

Goldstone’s instinct here—to connect Obama’s incrementalism to Job and (for lack of a better term) to Christian realism—seems to me absolutely on-point. In fact, I’ve long been amazed at the difficulty so many liberals seem to have in interpreting Obama’s mind. His immersion in this type of thinking has been obvious for years, and it explains nearly all of his major policy decisions. Nonetheless, it consistently baffles some commentators and eludes others. For an example of what I mean—and a demonstration of the aptness of Goldstone’s reference to Job—compare this complaint from Rick Perlstein, who was asked by the Times Book Review which book he would require Obama to read:

The Book of Job, maybe. It’s the best story I know at driving home the fact that the world just isn’t always a reasonable place. Not grasping that, I think, is Barack Obama’s tragic flaw: He still seems to stubbornly believe that if he just explains clearly and calmly enough to his friends across the aisle why his ideas will bring the greatest good to the greatest number, there’ll finally be no more Red America and no more Blue America.

Reading this remark, I almost wonder if we’re talking about the same president. Perlstein’s answer addresses domestic politics specifically, but as a general point, the notion that Obama’s “tragic flaw” is naive utilitarian optimism, or an inability to understand the irrationality of the world, gets things entirely backward. On domestic politics, I don’t think it matches Obama’s actions. But on foreign policy, it doesn’t even match his words:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. […] To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason. […] But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions—not just treaties and declarations—that brought stability to a post-World War II world. […] So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another—that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy.

That’s from Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech, which bears deeply the imprint of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has never been shy about the influence of Niebuhr on his thinking: as he said in 2007, he draws from Niebuhr “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 [that] we can eliminate those things.” That hardly sounds like someone who “stubbornly believes” that the world is a rational place which can be bent to his will through the power of pure reasonableness.

Obama’s record on foreign policy evinces the same belief in the tragic, compromised nature of even well-intentioned actions. The clearest (and most wrenching) example is his reluctance to come to the aid of Syria’s civilians against Bashar al-Assad. Even the current mission against ISIS doesn’t reveal a change in Obama’s belief that action against Assad would likely do more harm than good to American interests.

Whether Obama has read the Book of Job or not, he certainly has a keen appreciation of its lessons, which Goldstone is right to emphasize. Goldstone also praises Obama’s surprising reference to events in Ferguson as part of his refusal to “exaggerate the ability, role, or purity of the US.” That, too, is a deeply Niebuhrian move, and just one more piece of evidence that this president has taken many of the liberal theologian’s lessons to heart. Of course, this philosophical heritage is not beyond criticism: its acknowledgement of the occasional inevitability of violence makes progressives uneasy; its ambivalence about America’s power and purity angers conservatives. But the last thing it can be charged with is naiveté about the power of reason, or a refusal to acknowledge the irrationality of the world.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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