Source:  The  State  Department  

The  Perils  of  a  Pragmatic  President  
With  a  contingent  worldview,  Obama  can  manage  but  not  lead  
  Y.  Stuart  Nam   April  4,  2011  


  In  his  televised  speech  on  Libya,1  Obama  upheld  a  grandiose  ideal  of   America  as  a  moral  savior  for  the  world,  an  image  Americans  of  the   Regan  era  loved  despite  its  mostly  contradictory  history.    But  this  time,   most  Americans  are  too  tired  to  be  inspired  by  Obama’s  idealism,  which   feels  awkwardly  out  of  place  today.       Removing  Gadhafi  might  be  in  the  legitimate  national  interest  –  and   maybe  even  a  noble  humanitarian  cause  –  of  America  and  its  European   allies.  But  if  this  is  indeed  the  case,  the  American  president  should   articulate  this  rationale  to  his  people  in  a  more  forthright  manner  rather   than  citing  ambiguous  moral  conscience  as  a  compelling  reason  for   military  intervention.  Failing  that,  Obama’s  harsh  criticism  of  Bush’s   wars  echoes  with  hypocrisy.     A  president  elected  largely  because  of  Americans’  yearning  to  end  the   wars,  Obama  ironically  intensified  one  and  started  a  third,  following   Bush  in  an  eerily  similar  rhetorical  fashion  (see  Michael  D.  Shear’s   “Echoes  of  Bush  in  Obama’s  Libya  Speech”2  ).  Obama  denounced  Bush  

for  his  Iraqi  invasion,  which  Bush  also  defended  under  a  similar  moral   pretext,  with  the  following  logical  retort:  “Why  invade  Iraq  and  not   North  Korea  or  Burma?  Why  intervene  in  Bosnia  and  not  Darfur?”       Obama’s  critics  in  turn  now  can  ask:  Why  attack  Libya  and  not  Yemen  or   Syria?  Why  intervene  in  Libya  (to  prevent  a  humanitarian  crisis  which   may  or  may  not  happen)  and  not  the  Ivory  Coast,  where  a  massacre  and   refugee  crisis  is  already  happening?3     The  larger  issue  for  Americans,  however,  is  not  the  cost  of  the  Libyan   intervention’s  potential  fallout  or  even  the  Obama  administration’s  lack   of  an  articulated  post-­‐Bush  foreign  policy  vision.  What  mattes  more  for   the  future  of  America  is  Obama’s  only  principle  of  political  philosophy,   which  is  having  no  binding  policy  principle,  a  position  often  self-­‐ described  as  “pragmatic”  by  Obama  himself  and  his  advisors.4         Amidst  the  earlier  Bush  tax  cut  debates  with  the  Republicans,  Obama   often  emphasized  that  “no  one  owns  a  monopoly  on  truth,”  quickly   offering  a  compromise  to  the  then-­‐Congressional  minority  Republicans.5   In  response  to  questions  regarding  inconsistent  response  to  Libya   compared  to  other  areas  of  the  Middle  East  or  Africa,  his  senior  advisors   were  quoted  as  saying  that  they  did  not  care  about  the  appearance  of   policy  inconsistency.  “As  for  the  rest  of  the  Middle  East,  White  House   officials  say  the  president  will  respond  to  the  unfolding  events  on  a   country-­‐by-­‐country  basis,  and  will  resist  a  one-­‐size-­‐fits-­‐all  American   policy,”  according  to  a  recent  New  York  Times  report.6       The  case-­‐by-­‐case  approach  is  nothing  new  in  the  history  of  American   foreign  policy  and  not  so  much  problematic  in  itself  as  a  flexible   response  mechanism  to  the  rapidly  changing  nature  of  varied   international  affairs.  No  president  ever  risked  vital  national  interests  for   the  sake  of  appearing  logically  consistent  on  the  world  stage,  either.   What  is  new,  and  important  to  note,  is  that  no  president  has  ever  openly   and  so  proudly  proclaimed  to  subscribe  to  no  policy  principle.       If  Obama  has  a  reputation  for  making  quick  compromises  and  politics  of   no  conviction  (at  least  among  liberals),  it’s  not  a  reflection  of  his  having   no  political  conviction;  it  is  simply  the  outcome  of  his  only  conviction,   which  is  a  principle  of  no  binding  conviction.  This  is  not  an  idle  exercise   of  conceptual  nitpicking;  it  has  profound  consequences  for  the  American   people  since  the  presidential  leadership  of  the  United  States  may  not  be   in  harmony  with  a  principle  of  having  no  principle.    

  The  idea  of  consistence,  and  its  importance  as  a  guiding  policy  principle,   for  the  United  States’  foreign  or  domestic  policy  is  not  a  mere   conceptual  virtue;  it  is  moral  bedrock  necessary  for  building  a   consensus  of  a  united  vision.  When  the  president’s  main  decision-­‐ making  principle  can  be  described  only  as  a  ‘pragmatic’  case-­‐by-­‐case   approach,  one  can  only  understand  it  as  political  expediency,  even   hypocritical.  With  a  passive  worldview  like  Obama’s,  the  president  may   only  react  to  a  given  situation  thrown  at  him  rather  than  leading  a  new   path  to  create  a  better  world.       Obama  is  an  intellectual  president.  An  idea  and  its  underlying   philosophy  matter  to  him.  He  is  one  of  the  most  well  educated   presidents  in  U.S.  history  and  even  taught  constitutional  law  at  a   prestigious  university  for  years.  His  books  clearly  reflect  the  intellectual   depth  of  a  thoughtful  author  with  a  political  philosophy  of  his  own.       Because  Obama  is  a  politician  with  an  impressive  intellectual   background,  astute  observers  of  Obama  may  agree  with  James  T.   Kloppenberg,  the  author  of  Reading  Obama,  in  his  assessment  that   “Obama  is  the  product  of  three  distinct  developments”  –  first,  the   history  of  American  democracy;  second,  the  American  philosophy  of   pragmatism,  proselytized  by  philosophers  like  William  James,  John   Dewey,  and  lately  Richard  Rorty;  third,  “the  intellectual  upheavals”  that   occurred  on  American  campuses  where  Obama  spent  the  two  decades   as  both  student  and  professor.7     Obama’s  supporters  may  subscribe  to  Kloppenberg’s  notion  that   Obama’s  tendency  of  quick  political  compromise  is  not  necessarily  a   reflection  of  political  expediency  but  rather  his  intellectual  faith  in   philosophical  pragmatism,  which  values  “what  seems  simply  practical”   at  any  given  time.8     Philosophical  pragmatism  is  both  an  intellectual  attitude  and  a  new   conception  of  truth,  born  in  America  as  a  therapeutic  reaction  to  the   main  tradition  of  European  philosophy.  It  is  American  philosophers’   original  contribution  to  the  Western  intellectual  dialogue;  but  it  is  not  a   systematic  political  philosophy  one  can  practice  as  a  politician  or  even   as  the  president.  Obama  seems  to  believe  that  one  always  should  be   willing  to  compromise,  which  is  inevitable  in  politics,  since  “nobody   owns  the  truth,”  a  credo  he  seems  to  have  derived  from  the  pragmatism   of  John  Dewey  or  Richard  Rorty;  a  more  correct  reading  of  their  

pragmatism,  however,  is  that  truth  is  contingent  depending  on  your   perspective.     The  difference  is  not  philosophical  hair-­‐splitting,  since  that  contingency   is  not  merely  dependent  upon  changing  circumstance  but  one’s   principled  perspective.  One’s  perspective,  or  a  principled  worldview,   also  may  change;  but  truth  is  nowhere  to  be  seen  if  one  does  not  have  a   principle  in  the  first  place.  Obama  seems  to  be  mistaken  in  that  his   perspective  needs  not  be  articulated  in  the  form  of  a  moral  principle   since  pragmatism’s  wisdom  teaches  him  that  truth  is  simply  pliant   depending  on  each  situation.    His  ‘pragmatic’  attitude  also  translates   into  his  frequent  evasion  of  presidential  comments  on  the  controversial   but  important  issues  facing  the  nation  and  world.     Obama’s  political  worldview,  based  on  a  mistaken  philosophical   presumption,  has  manifested  into  unprincipled  politics  and  situational   ethics,  smacking  of  self-­‐contradictions  or  even  hypocrisy.  This  explains   why  his  liberal  supporters,  and  probably  his  opponents  too,  are  at  times   puzzled  about  his  true  political  colors.  What  seemed  ‘wise’  for  the   presidential  campaign’s  goal,  for  example,  is  no  longer  ‘pragmatic’  for   his  presidential  politics,  whose  top  priority  at  the  moment  is  getting  re-­‐ elected.       Obama  is  apparently  more  comfortable  reacting  rather  than  leading.  His   handling  of  the  Afghanistan  war,  financial  crisis  –  especially  addressing   its  (lack  thereof)  ethical  ramifications  for  the  country  –  and  a  series  of   Middle  East  challenges,  including  the  dormant-­‐for-­‐now  but  explosive   North  Korean  nuclear  threat,  has  been  merely  situation-­‐reactive.  The   kind  of  wobbling  responses  we  have  seen  in  his  administration’s   handling  of  the  ‘Arab  Spring’  therefore  should  be  expected.  House   Speaker  John  Boehner  correctly  lamented  that  Obama  had  not  shown   presidential  leadership  in  the  federal  deficit  debate  one  way  or  another.       One  can  say  Obama  has  been  too  busy  handing  one  crisis  after  another   and  even  succeeded  in  at  least  not  making  any  matter  worse.  But  that  is   not  an  appropriate  apology  for  the  office  he  aspired  to.  Crisis  of  epic   scale  is  common  for  the  American  presidency.  No  one  can  say  Bush’s   challenge  (9/11)  was  smaller  than  Obama’s  (the  financial  crisis).  Bush’s   problem  also  was  his  worldview,  which  was  dangerous  in  its  evangelical   black  and  white.      

Obama  is  not  a  reckless  president.  He  has  every  quality  to  become  a   potentially  great  president,  remembered  for  much  more  than  being  the   first  black  person  to  win  the  office.  Great  leadership  requires  a   principled  vision  that  all  followers  can  unite  behind  with  hope  and   passion.  With  his  mistaken  pragmatism,  however,  I’m  afraid  Obama  will   end  up  managing  a  status  quo,  maybe  even  managing  it  well,  but  not   leading  the  polarized  country  and  chaotic  world  toward  a  much  better   future.      
Y.  Stuart  Nam  is  an  author  and  former  journalist  living  in  the  San  Francisco  Bay  Area.   You  can  read  his  recent  columns  at  Follow   his  tweets  @stuartnam.      
1 2 3 4 Obama often describes himself as “pragmatic” in the sense that he does not subscribe to a fixed set of policy principles often characterized in American political parlance as ideology or doctrine. One recent case was his interview with Bill O’Reilly on the night of the Super Bowl in which he characterized himself as “pragmatic” as opposed to an ideologue. 5 Another recent case was his remark at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 4, 2010 ( 6 7 <Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition>, James T. Kloppenberg, Princeton University Press, 2011. 8 Ibid at location 31 of 2637 of Kindle version.

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