Obama: A Hopeful Realist, and way cooler than I thought

Tony SigHere at Theophiliacs we sometimes show our cards that we are sometimes uncritical Obama supporters.  Well, here’s another one for the books.  I was reading through my latest “Relevant” magazine (I know, I’m so hip I can hardly stand it) when I came upon the article about Obama and Evangelicals.  We all knew that he was an intellectual, and now we know a bit more about who he reads:
“A few years ago, David Brooks wrote a column in The New York Times in which he described a discussion he had with Obama about theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  Obama cannled Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers, saying that from Niebuhr he takes away “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain … but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. … We have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naive idealism to bitter realism.” p40

So there it is, Obama reads Niebuhr … and that’s cool



  1. So, Obama said: “there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain … but we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.” Funny that he didn’t apply that kind of Niebuhrian analysis to the war in Iraq. There was serious evil there, but Obama came up with all sorts of excuses for inaction rather than engagement.


  2. And others gave all sorts of reason for engagement that proved to be false. *just keep saying 911 over and over again…911…911..Presto! Iraq was about Bin Ladin…I think?


  3. From the Iraq Liberation Act: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime” (January 27, 1998). That’s pre-911 and pre-Bush. It was passed by both Houses of Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton.


  4. Alan Greenspan: He wrote simply, as if this were utterly self-evident: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”


  5. A Reuters article (http://www.enn.com/energy/article/23117) clarified what Greenspan did, and did not, mean by that quote. It also cites Robert Gates in disagreement with Greenspan. Here are the final paragraphs of that article:

    In The Washington Post interview, Greenspan said at the time of the invasion he believed like President George W. Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction “because Saddam was acting so guiltily trying to protect something.”

    But Greenspan’s main support for Saddam’s ouster was economically motivated, the Post reported.

    “My view is that Saddam, looking over his 30-year history, very clearly was giving evidence of moving towards controlling the Straits of Hormuz, where there are 17, 18, 19 million barrels a day” passing through,” Greenspan said.

    Even a small disruption could drive oil prices as high as $120 a barrel and would mean “chaos” to the global economy, Greenspan told the newspaper.

    Given that, “I’m saying taking Saddam out was essential,” he said. But he added he was not implying the war was an oil grab, the Post said.

    Me again: So, which was it: 911 or oil? Or both and more? The Bush Administration offered numerous reasons for going to war in Iraq. I don’t remember oil or Bin Laden being among them, but those are the two you cite. Whatever.

    Back to Obama. It interests me that all the “realists” in the Democratic party voted for the Iraq Liberation Act and the invasion of Iraq. They had good reason to do so based not only on so-called realpolitik (balance of power in the region and national interests) but also on moral and humanitarian grounds, not to mention international law grounds. If a rogue regime can skirt twelve years of UN Security Council resolutions, disregard armistice terms, ignore UN weapons inspections, subvert the UN oil-for-food program through bribery, and keep UN humanitarian relief from reaching its intended populations, then what’s the point of the UN? Indeed, what’s the point of international law if no one is going to enforce it? Surely a realist could see this. Oddly, Obama didn’t.

    Obama in his opposition to the war is more like the pacifists Niebuhr critiqued than the realists Niebuhr supported.


    1. As far as I was aware, Barack was opposed because of a total lack of a gameplan, a potent observation given the span and debacles of the war so far. It seems not to have been because he was failing to be Niebuhrian.

      But whatever, I do not want this blog to mirror the o-so-many blogs who simply have gone back and forth on the War.

      The main (only?) point is that it is good to have a President (elect) who reads theologians. And theologians who take the problem of evil seriously at that.



  6. I think it’s a huge canard to say that the Bush Administration went to war with “a total lack of a gameplan.” The argument has always been whether it had the right game plan, not whether it had any game plan.

    As far as the scope and debacle of the war: In a war of nearly 6 years’ length, the US has lost just over 4,000 soldiers. For purposes of comparison, that’s less American war dead in six years than were lost in any number of significant battles during a single day of the Civil War or World War II.

    And what have we left behind? A basically functioning democracy and a decimated Al Qaeda in Iraq. Not perfect, but not bad.

    By the way, here’s the text of Obama’s anti-war speech from 2002, the one that made him famous: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Barack_Obama's_Iraq_Speech. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

    “So for those of us who seek a more just and secure world for our children, let us send a clear message to the president today. You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings.

    “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure that the UN inspectors can do their work, and that we vigorously enforce a non-proliferation treaty, and that former enemies and current allies like Russia safeguard and ultimately eliminate their stores of nuclear material, and that nations like Pakistan and India never use the terrible weapons already in their possession, and that the arms merchants in our own country stop feeding the countless wars that rage across the globe.

    “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.

    “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil.

    “Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join. The battles against ignorance and intolerance, corruption and greed, poverty and despair.”

    He wants to fight everything but Saddam Hussein, it seems. And by “fight” he does not, evidently, mean actual fighting. Rather, for him it’s a metaphor for “concerted effort.”

    That’s not realist. Nor Niebuhrian.


  7. George,

    A)One of my best friends has her degree in political science and her dissertation was on Middle Eastern Politics; she is also a die hard Republican. She tells me that even though we now need to stay in Iraq out of political neccessity, she asserts it is indeed a mess, a foible, a flop. So I trust her.

    B) Let’s do some exegesis of my blog post…

    The title is “Obama: A Hopeful Realist, and way cooler than I thought.”

    The presence of the coloquial word “cooler,” normally reserved for high school conversation, hints that the post will have a lighter tenor.

    The first lines out of the box are purposely self-depreciating…”we are sometimes uncritically supportive” I then link to our opaquely “Obamessiah’ish” post “Yes We Did” This only further indicates that I am well aware that Obama my at some point need critical addressing, but this is not the post (or the blog 🙂 ) which will do it.

    I am also self-depreciating as I call attention to how incredibly hip I am to read “Relevant” magazine.

    I then quote Obama as he reveals that he really likes Niebuhr and can interact with his thesis’ critically.

    From the quote I proceed again to use “cool,” thereby demonstrating that the whole point of the post is to indicate that I think it is “cool” that Obama reads theologians who take the problem of evil seriously.

    Now to what I did NOT say. I did not say that Obama is always Niehburian in his politics. I did not say that his positions and conduct are distinctly Niehburian. Because I did not do this, it is a stretch to bring in Iraq or any of his policies for that matter.

    Though I did say “Obama: “A” hopeful realist,” even if we were to point out a political move that was non-Niebuhrian, it would not disprove anything. Just as if I said “George Wood, a Christian pastor” is not disproved by bringing up a time when you acted non-Christian or non-pastoral.

    Furthermore, given that I have read you show little sympathy for young idealist Obama supporters, we can confirm that your need to demonstrate (what is in your opinion) Obama’s sub-Niebuhrian Iraq policy, is born not out of a response to anything inherent in the text of my blog post; but rather born out of your desire to stomp out the Obama flame. 🙂

    In all, we can conclude that the blog post itself is my note that I find it reassuring that our future President is versed in Christian ethics. That is all.


  8. Tony:

    Yes, I’m doing my best to stomp out the Obama flame among you young, uh, Obama flamers. (Trust me, your bromance with that himbo will let you down.) Of course, with his noticeable turn to the right on national security issues, Obama is doing a fine flame-stomping job himself.

    And my dog thinks everything I say is God’s will, so that pretty much proves my supreme authority on any issue that I address.

    Shanah Tov!



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