President Obama confirmed once again last Thursday that Dwight Eisenhower, not Franklin Roosevelt or JFK, is his real role model. Generationally Obama and Eisenhower represent the same Nomad archetype, Ike from the Lost generation and Obama from Gen X, and they both believe in a degree of bipartisanship, an end to crusades, and an attempt to retrench. More specifically, Obama wants--as he has made clear again and again--to put the Boomer-inspired controversies that have dominated the last 40 years behind us. And now, he hopes, by the time he leaves office, to declare an end to the war on terror. In one sense this decision is long overdue. In another, it ignores critical remaining problems for which we simply have no solution.
In quoting James Madison to the effect that no nation could preserve its liberty through endless war, Obama implicitly drew a huge lesson from the last seventy years of American history. Our liberties have been threatened in many ways since the Second World War and our Constitution has repeatedly been infringed--never more so than in the last ten years. But in addition, a substantial faction of our political establishment, led by neoconservatives, actively embraces endless war. They saw the collapse of Communism not as the onset of a peaceful era, but as an opportunity to make American power supreme everywhere. After 9/11 they--and President Bush--eagerly embraced the image of another decades-long struggle against radical Islam parallel to the Cold War against Communism, which could itself have been fought at much less cost. They will be heard from again in days and weeks to come, but I expect them to lose this fight. The President's speech matched the national mood. We are sick of crusades.
The "war on terror" was George W. Bush's attempt to mobilize the energies of the nation as Lincoln and FDR had done, but because of his lack of real vision and the ineptitude of much of his team, he accomplished very little indeed. He did not manage to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, his triumph in Afghanistan turned out to be very temporary, and the invasion of Iraq was a disaster. Ten years later, Iraq is fragmented and still in the midst of a low-level but worsening civil war between Shi'ites and Sunnis. Its government is effectively an ally of Iran. Many old regimes in the region have fallen, as Bush and his Administration hoped they would, but hardly any of the post-revolutionary nations seem on their way to stability. Indeed, perhaps the weakest part of President Obama's speech referred to these developments, using language that could have come from the mouth of his predecessor.
"So the next element of our strategy involves addressing the
underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism, from North
Africa to South Asia. As we’ve learned this past decade, this is a vast
and complex undertaking. We must be humble in our expectation that we
can quickly resolve deep rooted problems like poverty and sectarian
hatred. Moreover, no two countries are alike, and some will undergo
chaotic change before things get better. But our security and values
demand that we make the effort.
"This means patiently supporting transitions to democracy in places
like Egypt, Tunisia and Libya – because the peaceful realization of
individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists. We
must strengthen the opposition in Syria, while isolating extremist
elements – because the end of a tyrant must not give way to the tyranny
of terrorism. We are working to promote peace between Israelis and
Palestinians – because it is right, and because such a peace could help
reshape attitudes in the region. And we must help countries modernize
economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship – because
American leadership has always been elevated by our ability to connect
with peoples’ hopes, and not simply their fears."
The government of the United States remains convinced, in short, that the Enlightenment vision of state and society will remain the only viable model for the future. But that model worked in the west and became in the twentieth century an example to the rest of the world because westerners deeply believed in it and made it work. It has now lost ground to the model of a globalized capitalist economy which holds political systems in thrall. Islam, not the Enlightenment, appears to be the most powerful force in the Muslim world. And lastly, the Israeli government does not share Obama's vision for peace with the Palestinians. It is indeed resolved to endless war and it has in many ways dragged Washington in its wake. The President did show some welcome realism, when he identified the real problem that has encouraged the US to rely upon drone strikes: that large portions of the world are completely ungoverned. His solutions to that problem, however, were almost surely wildly optimistic.
The speech was perhaps the first thing the President has done in the last five years to justify his Nobel Peace Prize--but it is only a speech. It seems quite possible that John Kerry, the new Secretary of State, might have had something to do with it, and he seems far more interested in serious diplomacy than his predecessor. Rather than simply calling again and again for the fall of Hafez Assad, for instance, Kerry is actively seeking the help of the Russian government in bringing about a settlement of the civil war in Syria. This is the only hope, however forlorn it may be, of avoiding another disastrous bloodbath and a regional religious war comparable to the one that struck Central Europe in 1618-48. But it will not be easy.
It is a pretty well-kept secret, but President Obama has not shown any personal diplomatic skills as President. He tends to be rather wooden with foreign leaders, and he has not shown the great skill of Presidents like Kennedy and Bush I in sizing up and recognizing foreign leaders' problems so as to figure out they can help him solve his own. Kerry is a diplomat's son and he has set to work. The President set out a worthy goal, one which coincidentally echoed the conclusion of the last lecture I delivered at the Naval War College a little more than a year ago. He will have a real legacy if he can achieve it.