Obama’s “Cold War Liberalism”
Recently, on this blog, David Gibson has suggested an interpretation of Obama’s Nobel Speech in light of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which I pointed out is also a favorite trope of George Weigel. In the NYTimes today, David Brooks also reads Obama in connection with Niebuhr and ties both to “Cold War Liberalism.” Here’s the meat of Brooks’ article:
Cold war liberalism had a fine run in the middle third of the 20th century, and it has lingered here and there since. Scoop Jackson kept the flame alive in the 1970s. Peter Beinart wrote a book called “The Good Fight,” giving the tendency modern content.
But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.
Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.
Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2002, Obama spoke against the Iraq war, but from the vantage point of a cold war liberal. He said he was not against war per se, just this one, and he was booed by the crowd. In 2007, he spoke about the way Niebuhr formed his thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”
So, who’s side is this Niebuhr guy on? ”Doves” like MLK? ”Hawks” like Weigel? And do we really need to be rolling back to the Cold War? Finally, I’m sure troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would describe the situations there as anything but cold. So, how “cold” is Obama’s “Cold War Liberalism”?
UPDATE: I just wanted to link in the main body of this post the article David Gibson wrote over at Politics Daily on Obama and Niebuhr. Definitely well worth a read!