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The Perils of a Pragmatic President

The Perils of a Pragmatic President

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Published by Stuart Nam
Obama’s political worldview, self-described as 'pragmatic,' has manifested into unprincipled politics and situational ethics.
Obama’s political worldview, self-described as 'pragmatic,' has manifested into unprincipled politics and situational ethics.

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Published by: Stuart Nam on Apr 04, 2011
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02/12/2013

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Source:TheStateDepartment
ThePerilsofaPragmaticPresident
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

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Zack Van Cleve added this note|
"A future Jimmy Carter. I mean that in a good way." Huh? What exactly has Jimmy done in or out of office that is good? When he left office we were suffering from double digit inflation and interest rates and since he has be a border line virulent anti-semite. Shall I go on? By the way the current BLS U6 is 15.2%
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