On January 21, 2009, Barack Obama promised to return America to “the high moral ground.” Two and a half years later, we’re still waiting.
By **David Bromwich**
By arrangement with TomDispatch.com.
Is it too soon to speak of the Bush-Obama presidency?
The record shows impressive continuities between the two administrations, and nowhere more than in the policy of “force projection” in the Arab world. With one war half-ended in Iraq, but another doubled in size and stretching across borders in Afghanistan; with an expanded program of drone killings and black-ops assassinations, the latter glorified in special ceremonies of thanksgiving (as they never were under Bush); with the number of prisoners at Guantanamo having decreased, but some now slated for permanent detention; with the repeated invocation of “state secrets” to protect the government from charges of war crimes; with the Patriot Act renewed and its most dubious provisions left intact—the Bush-Obama presidency has sufficient self-coherence to be considered a historical entity with a life of its own.
The significance of this development has been veiled in recent mainstream coverage of the national security state and our larger and smaller wars. Back in 2005-2006, when the Iraqi insurgency refused to die down and what had been presented as “sectarian feuding” began to look like a war of national liberation against an occupying power, the American press exhibited an uncommon critical acuteness. But Washington’s embrace of “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 took that war off the front page, and it—along with the Afghan War—has returned only occasionally in the four years since.
This disappearance suited the purposes of the long double-presidency. Keep the wars going but normalize them; make them normal by not talking about them much; by not talking about them imply that, while “victory” is not in sight, there is something else, an achievement more realistic and perhaps more grown-up, still available to the United States in the Greater Middle East. This other thing is never defined but has lately been given a name. They call it “success.”
Meanwhile, back at home
The usual turn from unsatisfying wars abroad to happier domestic conditions, however, no longer seems tenable. In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s “debt deal”—a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.
Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.
One of the last good times that President Obama enjoyed before the frenzy of debt negotiations began was a chuckle he shared with Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric and now head of the president’s outside panel of economic advisers. At a June 13th meeting of the president’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, a questioner said he assumed that President Obama knew about the difficulties caused by the drawn-out process of securing permits for construction jobs. Obama leaned into the microphone and offered a breezy ad-lib: “Shovel ready wasn’t as, uh, shovel-ready as we expected”—and Immelt got off a hearty laugh. An unguarded moment: the president of “hope and change” signifying his solidarity with the big managers whose worldly irony he had adopted.
A certain mystery surrounds Obama’s perpetuation of Bush’s economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush’s war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.
Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all those whose hopes once rested with him.
The philosopher William James took as a motto for practical morality: “By their fruits shall ye know them, not by their roots.”
Suppose we test the last two and a half years by the same sensible criterion. Translated into the language of presidential power—the power of a president whose method was to field a “team of rivals” and “lead from behind”—the motto must mean: by their appointments shall ye know them.
Let us examine Obama, then, by the standard of his cabinet members, advisers, and favored influences, and group them by the answers to two questions: Whom has he wanted to stay on longest, in order to profit from their solidity and bask in their influence?Which of them has he discarded fastest or been most eager to shed his association with?Think of them as the saved and the sacked. Obama’s taste in associates at these extremes may tell us something about the moral and political personality in the middle.
Advisers whom the president entrusted with power beyond expectation, and sought to keep in his administration for as long as he could prevail on them to stay:
1. Lawrence Summers: Obama’s chief economic adviser, 2009-2010. As Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury, 1999-2001, Summers arranged the repeal of the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had separated the commercial banks—holders of the savings of ordinary people—from the speculative action of the brokerage houses and money firms. The aim of Glass-Steagall was to protect citizens and the economy from a financial bubble and collapse. Demolition of that wall between savings and finance was a large cause of the 2008 meltdown. In the late 1990s, Summers had also pressed for the deregulation of complex derivatives—a dream fully realized under Bush. In the first years of the Obama era, with the ear of the president, he commandeered the bank bailouts and advised against major programs for job creation. He won, and we are living with the results.
In 2009-2010, the critical accessory to Summers’s power was Timothy Geithner, Obama’s treasury secretary. Most likely, Geithner was picked for his position by the combined recommendations of Summers and Bush’s Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. The latter once described Geithner as “a very unusually talented young man,” and worked with him closely in 2008 when he was still president of the New York Fed. At that time, he concurred with Paulson on the wisdom of bailing out the insurance giant AIG and not rescuing Lehman Brothers. Obama for his part initiated several phone consultations with Paulson during the 2008 campaign—often holding his plane on the tarmac to talk and listen. This chain is unbroken. Any tremors in the president’s closed world caused by Summers’s early departure from the administration have undoubtedly been offset by Geithner’s recent reassurance that he will stay at the Treasury beyond 2011.
Postscript: In 2011, Summers has become more reformist than Obama. On The Charlie Rose Show on July 13th, he criticized the president’s dilatoriness in mounting a program to create jobs. Thus he urged the partial abandonment of his own policy, which Obama continues to defend.
Earlier in his career, Obama seems to have cherished an interest in the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, Obama dissociated himself from all three chosen advisers.
2. Robert Gates: A member of the permanent establishment in Washington, Gates raised to the third power the distinction of massive continuity: First as CIA director under George H.W. Bush, second as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, and third as Obama’s secretary of defense. He remained for 28 months and departed against the wishes of the president. Gates sided with General David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen in 2009 to promote a massive (called “moderate”) escalation of the Afghan War; yet he did so without rancor or posturing—a style Obama trusted and in the company of which he did not mind losing. In the Bush years, Gates was certainly a moderate in relation to the extravagant war aims of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and their neoconservative circle. He worked to strengthen U.S. militarism through an ethic of bureaucratic normalization.
His approach has been endorsed and will be continued—though probably with less canniness—by his successor Leon Panetta. Without a career in security to fortify his confidence, Panetta is really a member of a different species: the adaptable choice for “running things”—without regard to the nature of the thing or the competence required. Best known as the chief of staff who reduced to a semblance of order the confusion of the Clinton White House, he is associated in the public mind with no set of views or policies.
3. Rahm Emanuel: As Obama’s White House chief of staff, Emanuel performed much of the hands-on work of legislative bargaining that President Obama himself preferred not to engage in. (Vice President Joe Biden also regularly took on this role.) He thereby incurred a cheerless gratitude, but he is a man willing to be disliked. Obama seems to have held Emanuel’s ability in awe; and such was his power that nothing but the chance of becoming mayor of Chicago would have plucked him from the White House. Emanuel is credited, rightly or not, with the Democratic congressional victory of 2006, and one fact about that success, which was never hidden, has been too quickly forgotten. Rahm Emanuel took pains to weed out anti-war candidates.
Obama would have known this, and admired the man who carried it off. Whether Emanuel pursued a similar strategy in the 2010 midterm elections has never been seriously discussed. The fact that the category “anti-war Democrat” hardly exists in 2011 is, however, an achievement jointly creditable to Emanuel and the president.
4. Cass Sunstein: Widely thought to be the president’s most powerful legal adviser. Sunstein defended and may have advised Obama on his breach of his 2008 promise (as senator) to filibuster any new law that awarded amnesty to the telecoms that illegally spied on Americans. This was Obama’s first major reversal in the 2008 presidential campaign: he had previously defended the integrity of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act against the secret encroachment of the National Security Agency (NSA).
At that moment, Obama changed from an accuser to a conditional apologist for the surveillance of Americans: the secret policy advocated by Dick Cheney, approved by President Bush, executed by NSA Director Michael Hayden, and supplied with a rationale by Cheney’s legal counsel David Addington. In his awkward public defense of the switch, Obama suggested that scrutiny of telecom records and their uses by the inspectors general in the relevant agencies and departments should be enough to restore the rule of law.
When it comes to national security policy, Sunstein is a particularly strong example of Bush-Obama continuity. Though sometimes identified as a liberal, from early on he defended the expansion of the national security state under Cheney’s Office of the Vice President, and he praised the firm restraint with which the Ashcroft Justice Department shouldered its responsibilities. “By historical standards,” he wrote in the fall of 2004, “the Bush administration has acted with considerable restraint and with commendable respect for political liberty. It has not attempted to restrict speech or the democratic process in any way. The much-reviled and poorly understood Patriot Act, at least as administered, has done little to restrict civil liberty as it stood before its enactment.” This seems to have become Obama’s view.
Charity toward the framers of the Patriot Act has, in the Obama administration, been accompanied by a consistent refusal to initiate or support legal action against the “torture lawyers.” Sunstein described the Bush Justice Department memos by John Yoo and Jay Bybee, which defended the use of the water torture and other extreme methods, in words that stopped short of legal condemnation: “It’s egregiously bad. It’s very low level, it’s very weak, embarrassingly weak, just short of reckless.” Bad lawyering: a professional fault but not an actionable offense.
The Obama policy of declining to hold any high official or even CIA interrogators accountable for violations of the law by the preceding administration would likely not have survived opposition by Sunstein. A promise not to prosecute, however, has been implicit in the findings by the Obama Justice Department—a promise that was made explicit by Leon Panetta in February 2009 when he had just been named President Obama’s new director of the CIA.
As head of the president’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, with an office in the White House, Sunstein adjudicates government policy on issues of worker and consumer safety; yet his title suggests a claim of authority on issues such as the data-mining of information about American citizens and the government’s deployment of a state secrets privilege. He deserves wider attention, too, for his 2008 proposal that the government “cognitively infiltrate” discussion groups on-line and in neighborhoods, paying covert agents to monitor and, if possible, discredit lines of argument which the government judges to be extreme or misleading.
5. Eric Holder: Holder once said that the trial of suspected 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York City courtroom would be “the defining event of my time as attorney general.” The decision to make KSM’s a civilian trial was, however, scuttled, thanks to incompetent management at the White House: neither the first nor last failure of its kind. The policy of trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts seems to have suffered from never being wholeheartedly embraced by the administration’s inside actors. Local resistance by the New York authorities was the ostensible reason for the failure and the change of venue back to a military tribunal at Guantanamo. No member of the administration besides Holder has been observed to show much regret.
During his 30-month tenure, in keeping with Obama’s willingness to overlook the unpleasant history of CIA renditions and “extreme interrogations,” Holder has made no move to prosecute any upper-level official of any of the big banks and money firms responsible for the financial collapse of 2008. His silence on the subject has been taken as a signal that such prosecutions will never occur. To judge by public statements, the energies of the attorney general, in an administration that arrived under the banner of bringing “sunshine” and “transparency” to Washington, have mainly been dedicated to the prosecution of government whistle-blowers through a uniquely rigorous application of the Espionage Act of 1917. More people have been accused under that law by this attorney general than in the entire preceding 93 years of the law’s existence.
Again, this is a focus that Bush-era attorney generals John Ashcroft, Alberto Gonzales, and Michael Mukasey might have relished, but on which none would have dared to act on so boldly. Extraordinary delays in grand jury proceedings on Army Private Bradley Manning, suspected of providing government secrets to WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange, who ran that website, are said to have come from a protracted attempt to secure a legal hold against one or both potential defendants within the limits of a barbarous and almost dormant law.
6. Dennis Ross: Earlier in his career, Obama seems to have cherished an interest in the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In Chicago, he was a friend of the dissident Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi; during his 2007 primary campaign, he sought and received advice from Robert Malley, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. Both were “realist” opponents of the expansionist policy of Israel’s right-wing coalition government, which subsidizes and affords military protection to Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank.
Under pressure from the Israel lobby, however, Obama dissociated himself from all three chosen advisers.
Ross, as surely as Gates, is a member of Washington’s permanent establishment. Recruited for the Carter Defense Department by Paul Wolfowitz, he started out as a Soviet specialist, but his expertise migrated with a commission to undertake a Limited Contingency Study on the need for American defense of the Persian Gulf. An American negotiator at the 2000 Camp David summit, Ross was accused of being an unfair broker, having always “started from the Israeli bottom line.”
He entered the Obama administration as a special adviser to Hillary Clinton on the Persian Gulf, but was moved into the White House on June 25, 2009, and outfitted with an elaborate title and comprehensive duties: Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Central Region, including all of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Ross has cautioned Obama to be “sensitive” to domestic Israeli concerns.
In retrospect, his installation in the White House looks like the first step in a pattern of concessions to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that undid Obama’s hopes for an agreement in the region. Here, caution precluded all inventiveness. It could have been predicted that the ascendancy of Ross would render void the two-state solution Obama anticipated in his carefully prepared and broadly advertised speech to the Arab world from Cairo University in June 2009.
7. Peter Orzag: Director of the Office of Management and Budget from January 2009 to August 2010, Orzag was charged with bringing in the big health insurers to lay out what it would take for them to support the president’s health-care law. In this way, Orzag—along with the companies—exerted a decisive influence on the final shape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. In January 2011, he left the administration to become vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup. A few days out of the White House, he published an op-ed in the New York Times advising the president to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans—adding that Obama should indicate that the cuts would continue in force only through 2012. Obama took the advice.
8. Thomas Donilon: National Security Adviser and (after the departure of Gates) Obama’s closest consultant on foreign policy. Donilon supported the 34,000 troop-escalation order that followed the president’s inconclusive 2009 Afghanistan War review. He encouraged and warmly applauded Obama’s non-binding “final orders” on Afghanistan, which all the participants in the 2009 review were asked formally to approve. (The final orders speak of “a prioritized comprehensive approach” by which the U.S. will “work with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai when we can” to set “the conditions for an accelerated transition,” to bring about “effective sub-national governance,” and to “transfer” the responsibility for fighting the war while continuing to “degrade” enemy forces.)
[Dawn Johnsen] was withdrawn after a 14-month wait, and she was denied a confirmation process. The cause: Republican objections to her public statements against the practice of torture and legal justifications for torture.
Donilon comes from the worlds of business, the law, and government in about equal measure: a versatile career spanning many orthodoxies. His open and unreserved admiration for President Obama seems to have counted more heavily in his appointment than the low opinion of his qualifications apparently held by several associates. As Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton administration, he helped arrange the eastward expansion of NATO after the Cold War: perhaps the most pointless and destructive bipartisan project of the epoch. He was Executive Vice President for Law and Policy at Fannie Mae, 1999-2005.
Advisers and nominees with views that were in line with Obama’s 2008 election campaign or his professed goals in 2009, but who have since been fired, asked to resign or step down, or seen their nominations dropped:
1. General James Jones: Former Marine Corps Commandant and a skeptic of the Afghanistan escalation, Jones became the president’s first National Security Adviser. He was, however, often denied meetings with Obama, who seems to have looked on Gates as a superior technocrat, Petraeus as a more prestigious officer, and Donilon as a more fervent believer in the split-the-difference war and diplomatic policies Obama elected to pursue. Jones resigned in October 2010, under pressure.
A curious point: Obama had spoken to Jones only twice before appointing him to so high a post and seems hardly to have come to know him by the time he resigned.
2. Karl Eikenberry: Commander of Combined Forces in Afghanistan before he was made ambassador, Eikenberry, a retired Lieutenant General, had seniority over both Petraeus and then war commander General Stanley McChrystal when it came to experience in that country and theater of war. He was the author of cables to the State Department in late 2009, which carried a stinging rebuke to the conduct of the war and unconcealed hostility toward any new policy of escalation. The Eikenberry cables were drafted in order to influence the White House review that fall; they advised that the Afghan war was in the process of being lost, that it could never be won, and that nothing good would come from an increased commitment of U.S. troops.
Petraeus, then Centcom commander, and McChrystal were both disturbed by the cables—startled when they arrived unbidden and intimidated by their authority. Obama, astonishingly, chose to ignore them. This may be the single most baffling occasion of the many when fate dealt a winning card to the president and yet he folded. Among other such occasions: the 2008-2009 bank bailouts and the opening for financial regulation; the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the opportunity for a revised environmental policy; the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns and a revised policy toward nuclear energy; the Goldstone Report and the chance for an end to the Gaza blockade. But of all these as well as other cases that might be mentioned, the Eikenberry cables offer the clearest instance of persisting in a discredited policy against the weight of impressive evidence.
Ambassador Eikenberry retired in 2011, and Obama replaced him with Ryan Crocker, the Foreign Service officer brought into Iraq by Bush to help General Petraeus manage the details and publicity around the Iraq surge of 2007-2008.
3. Paul Volcker: Head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, Volker had a record (not necessarily common among upper-echelon workers in finance) entirely free of the reproach of venality. A steady adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, he lent gravity to the young candidate’s professions of competence in financial matters. He also counseled Obama against the one-sidedness of a recovery policy founded on repayment guarantees to financial outfits such as Citigroup and Bank of America: the policy, that is, favored by Summers and Geithner in preference to massive job creation and a major investment in infrastructure. “If you want to be a bank,” he said, “follow the bank rules. If Goldman Sachs and the others want to do proprietary trading, then they shouldn’t be banks.” His advice—to tighten regulation in order to curb speculative trading—was adopted late and in diluted form. In January 2010, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, which paid no federal taxes that year, replaced him.
4. Dennis Blair: As Director of National Intelligence, Blair sought to limit the expansion of covert operations by the CIA. In this quest he was defeated by CIA Director Leon Panetta—a seasoned infighter, though without any experience in intelligence, who successfully enlarged the Agency’s prerogatives and limited oversight of its activities during his tenure. Blair refused to resign when Obama asked him to, and demanded to be fired. He finally stepped down on May 21, 2010.
Doubtless Blair hurt his prospects irreparably by making clear to the president his skepticism regarding the usefulness of drone warfare: a form of killing Obama favors as the most politic and antiseptic available to the U.S. Since being sacked, Blair has come out publicly against the broad use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
On his way out, he was retrospectively made a scapegoat for the November 2009 Fort Hood, Texas, killing spree by Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan; for the “underwear” bomber’s attempt to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit on Christmas day 2009; and for the failed Times Square car bombing of May 2010—all attacks (it was implied) that Blair should have found the missing key to avert, even though the Army, the FBI, and the CIA were unable to do so.
5. James Cartwright: As vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cartwright passed on to Obama, and interpreted for him, a good deal of information that proved useful in the Afghanistan War review. Their friendship outlasted the process and he came to be known as Obama’s “favorite general,” but Cartwright stirred the resentment from both Petraeus and Mullen for establishing a separate channel of influence with the president. Like Eikenberry, he had been a skeptic on the question of further escalation in Afghanistan. His name was floated by the White House as the front-runner to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs after the retirement of Mullen. Informed of the military opposition to the appointment, Obama reversed field and chose Army Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey, a figure more agreeable to Petraeus and Mullen.
6. Dawn Johnsen: Obama’s first choice to head the Office of Legal Council, a choice generally praised and closely watched by constitutional lawyers and civil libertarians. Her name was withdrawn after a 14-month wait, and she was denied a confirmation process. The cause: Republican objections to her writings and her public statements against the practice of torture and legal justifications for torture.
This reversal falls in with a larger pattern: the putting forward of candidates for government positions whose views are straightforward, publicly available, and consistent with the pre-2009 principles of Barack Obama—followed by Obama’s withdrawal of support for the same candidates. A more recent instance was the naming (after considerable delay) of Elizabeth Warren as a special advisor to organize the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, followed by the decision in July not to nominate her as the first director of the bureau.
Avoidance of a drag-out fight in confirmation hearings repeatedly seems to be the recurrent motive here. Of course, the advantage of such a fight, given an articulate and willing nominee, is the education of public opinion. But in every possible instance, President Obama has been averse to any public engagement in the clash of ideas. “Bottom line is that it was going to be close,” a Senate Democratic source told ABC’s Jake Tapper when Johnsen’s name was withdrawn. “If they wanted to, the White House could have pushed for a vote. But they didn’t want to because they didn’t have the stomach for the debate.”
Where the nomination of an “extreme” candidate might have hardened the impression of Obama as an extremist, might not a public hearing have helped eradicate the very preconception that a frightened withdrawal tends to confirm? This question is not asked.
7. Greg Craig: For two years special counsel in the Clinton White House, he led the team defending the president in the impeachment proceedings in Congress. Craig’s declaration of support for Obama in March 2007 was vital to the insurgent candidate, because of his well-known loyalty to the Clintons. Obama made him White House Counsel, and his initial task was to draw up plans for the closing of Guantanamo, a promise made by the president on his first day in the Oval Office. But once the paper was signed, Obama showed little interest in the developing plans. Others were more passionate. Dick Cheney worked on a susceptible populace to resurrect old fears. The forces against closure rallied and spread panic, while the president said nothing. Craig was defeated inside the White House by the “realist” Rahm Emanuel, and sacked.
[M]orality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals. Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.
8. Carol Browner: A leading environmentalist in the Clinton administration, Browner was given a second shot by Obama as director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. She found her efforts thwarted within the administration as well as in Congress: in mid-2010 Obama decided that—as a way to deal with global warming—cap-and-trade legislation was a loser for the midterm elections. Pressure on Obama from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to heed business interests served as a strong incitement in forcing Browner’s resignation after the democratic “shellacking” in midterm elections, a result that his quiet abandonment of cap-and-trade had failed to prevent. The White House had no backup plan for addressing the disaster of global warming. After Browner’s resignation in March 2011, her position was abolished. Since then, Obama has seldom spoken of global warming or climate change.
Moral and Political Limbo
The Obama presidency has been characterized by a refined sense of impossibility. A kind of suffocation sets in when a man of power floats carefully clear of all unorthodox stimuli and resorts to official comforters of the sort exemplified by Panetta. As the above partial list of the saved and the sacked shows, the president lives now in a world in which he is certain never to be told he is wrong when he happens to be on the wrong track. It is a world where the unconventionality of an opinion, or the existence of a possible majority against it somewhere, counts as prima facie evidence against its soundness.
So alternative ideas vanish—along with the people who represent them. What, then, does President Obama imagine he is doing as he backs into one weak appointment after another, and purges all signs of thought and independence around him? We have a few dim clues.
A popular book on Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, seems to have prompted Obama to suppose that Lincoln himself “led from behind” and was committed to bipartisanship not only as a tactic but as an always necessary means to the highest good of democracy. A more wishful conceit was never conceived; but Obama has talked of the book easily and often to support a “pragmatic” instinct for constant compromise that he believes himself to share with the American people and with Lincoln.
A larger hint may come from Obama’s recently released National Strategy for Counterterrorism, where a sentence in the president’s own voice asserts: “We face the world as it is, but we will also pursue a strategy for the world we seek.” If the words “I face the world as it is” have a familiar sound, the reason is that they received a trial run in Obama’s 2009 Nobel Prize speech. Those words were the bridge across which an ambivalent peacemaker walked to confront the heritage of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King with the realities of power as experienced by the leader of the only superpower in the world.
Indeed, Obama’s understanding of international morality seems to be largely expressed by the proposition that “there’s serious evil in the world”—a truth he confided in 2007 to the New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, and attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—combined with the assertion that he is ready to “face the world as it is.” The world we seek is, of course, the better world of high morality. But morality, properly understood, is nothing but a framework for ideals. Once you have discharged your duty, by saying the right words for the right policies, you have to accommodate the world.
This has become the ethic of the Bush-Obama administration in a new phase. It explains, as nothing else does, Obama’s enormous appetite for compromise, the growing conventionality of his choices of policy and person, and the legitimacy he has conferred on many radical innovations of the early Bush years by assenting to their logic and often widening their scope. They are, after all, the world as it is.
Obama’s pragmatism comes down to a series of maxims that can be relied on to ratify the existing order—any order, however recent its advent and however repulsive its effects. You must stay in power in order to go on “seeking.” Therefore, in “the world as it is,” you must requite evil with lesser evil. You do so to prevent your replacement by fanatics: people, for example, like those who invented the means you began by deploring but ended up adopting. Their difference from you is that they lack the vision of the seeker. Finally, in the world as it is, to retain your hold on power you must keep in place the sort of people who are normally found in places of power.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
David Bromwich writes on civil liberties and America’s wars for the Huffington Post. A TomDispatch regular, as well as contributor to the New York Review of Books, his latest essay, “How Lincoln Explained Democracy,” appeared recently in the Yale Review.