The Irony of it All?

David Brooks is a little disappointed that President Obama doesn't make him feel giddy like a schoolboy on Christmas Eve:

His policies are often a balance as he tries to accommodate different points of view. He doesn’t generally issue edicts. In matters foreign and domestic, he seems to spend a lot of time coaxing people along. His governing style, in short, is biased toward complexity.

This style has never been more evident than in his decision to expand the war in Afghanistan. America traditionally fights its wars in a spirit of moral fervor. Most war presidents cast themselves as heroes on a white charger, believing that no one heeds an uncertain trumpet.

Although Brooks goes on to describe Obama as someone "cloaked in a Niebuhrian modesty" and concludes the column with an endorsement of Obama's cool empiricism, it's pretty obvious that Brooks is ambivalent about the fact that we have -- to use a different set of science fiction metaphors -- traded Anakin Skywalker for Qui-Gon Jinn. You can contrast Brooks' reticence to embrace Obama's analytical approach with his enthusiasm for President Bush's buoyant self-confidence. Here is Brooks in 2007, after an interview with the president:

I left the 110-minute session thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency. [...]

The first is his unconquerable faith in the rightness of his Big Idea. Bush is convinced that history is moving in the direction of democracy [...]

Second, Bush remains energized by the power of the presidency. Some presidents complain about the limits of the office. But Bush, despite all the setbacks, retains a capacious view of the job and its possibilities.

Brooks isn't the only one calling out Obama's affection for nuance. I'm sure most of you read Politico's piece on the "7 stories Barack Obama doesn't want told." Number 2 on the list? "Too much Leonard Nimoy."

Of course, this is another one of those of instances of "what's bad for the Beltway is good for America." As Glenn Greenwald noted a few days ago, we should be glad to see that Obama has eschewed moralistic rhetoric in favor of blunt language about America's concrete interests. It's not that Obama's language is any more convincing -- to borrow from Greenwald, "the claim that we must stay in Afghanistan in order to reduce genuine threats to our security is...ultimately unpersuasive" -- but that concrete, cogent language at least opens up the space for actual debate. The biggest problem with foreign policy moralism (besides the fact that it ends up killing a lot of people) is that it's incredibly hard to push against. That is, how do you oppose a war of liberation? The usual rejoinders -- democracy doesn't flow from the barrel of a gun, destroying a country isn't "liberation" -- simply don't have the same weight as calls for freedom and democracy. In a distinctly messianic country like the United States, moralism will always knock out pragmatic realism in the ring of public opinion.

The irony of it all is that by moving away from the language of George W. Bush, Obama has has made it far easier for foreign policy skeptics on the right and left to oppose him effectively. Think of it as the tasty side-order to the shit sandwich Obama gave us on Tuesday.

--Jamelle Bouie

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