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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.
Y. Stuart Nam is an author and former journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read his recent columns at http://www.scribd.com/Stuart%20Nam. Follow his tweets @stuartnam.
http://www.scribd.com/doc/51804420/Obama-on-Libya-3-28-2011 http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/29/echoes-of-bush-in-obamas-libya-speech/ 3 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/03/world/africa/03ivory.html?hp 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 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-national-prayer-breakfast). 6 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/world/africa/30doctrine.html 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.