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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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Al added this note
I think America became one country on election day 2008. Obama's election was the result of that Community Organizing, held in Repub contempt
Al added this note
I am sick of America being the gunslinger. It is not fair to our boys

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