The Irony of Barack Obama: A Conversation with Peter Josephson and R. Ward Holder

Director’s note:  We discuss The Irony of Barack Obama, a new book by Peter Josephson and R. Ward Holder, this week.  Today, the conversation covers the Obama administration Afghanistan policy, the use or lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness in the making of foreign policy, and a Niebuhrian approach to stalemate in Washington.

CHR:   You discuss the administration’s Afghanistan policy.  Do you see Obama understanding or employing cultural competency or intercultural sensitivity in the way he makes policy or promotes policy?  How do those play in a Niebuhrian framework?  Reinhold Niebuhr’s brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, wrote a book that became quite well-known entitled Christ and Culture.  In that work, H R Niebuhr showed a deep appreciation of cultural issues as they impact people’s reception of what we call the Good News, and how people employ their faith.  Are incultural sensitivities part of a Niebuhrian approach, and do you see Obama operating from a framework that is so informed?  In particular, do you see this in Afghanistan?

PJ:       Obama, in his speeches, indicates that he is aware of those issues.  Part of the headline news difficulty is communicating that awareness to the people who are actually implementing the policy.  I have a sense that Obama is aware of these issues, and I’m quite sure that Gen. Petraeus is aware of them.  The problem in Afghanistan is what is called the “street-level” actor.  That’s a problem that Socrates raises in The Republic – that is, we are going to train people to be cruel, and gentle.  They must be fierce and they must be kind.  How on earth one constructs a character that is appropriately fierce and appropriately kind is a problem we haven’t quite solved yet.  It’s a problem that engages the kind of cultural sensitivity you’re talking about.

Some of the people who are implementing our policy clearly demonstrate that sensitivity.  Some of the people clearly don’t.  Returning to Obama’s problem – even awareness of the issue only adds a layer of complexity to the problem that he’s trying to solve.  In other words, the US has adopted a particular policy in Afghanistan; it is the policy that, I would say, in large measure, was formed out of politicking within the administration and between the administration and Congress, and concerns about the President’s political standing in the nation, and so a concern about policy in the region – Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia – and it has to be a policy that is aware of the particular social dynamics in Afghanistan.  I suppose that that’s kind of a back of the envelope way of addressing the problems – these problems are so complex that there isn’t going to be a scientific solution to them.

So, the short answer is, that I’m sure Obama is aware of these issues.  I’m sure he is confronted on a weekly basis with these problems.  To some degree, the policy in Afghanistan is coordinated in a way that takes account of these problems, that is, that takes account of local situations and tries to accommodate the local culture.  In some respects, that accommodation runs counter to the American aims of the policy, and to American domestic policy – the way that Americans talk about what’s going on there.

RWH:  The question is a great one, but probably isn’t complex enough.  To talk about Afghanistan and its culture is to suggest that there is a monolithic culture for all Afghans.  There is a variety of ethnic groups and a variety of desires within those cultures.  Any president, whether Obama, or Bush, or whomever is the next president, is facing a number of questions – do I work with those who support the Taliban?  Do I work with those who support rights for women?  While there are people who would be representative of the answers to both of these questions, they aren’t always talking to each other on the ground, and I think you see efforts which are not fully coordinated that try at root level to take cognizance of the facts on the ground, including the cultural matrix in the country.  But sometimes these attempts fail.  So for instance, Koran burning is simply a failure, and it’s not part of the policy – it’s an example of someone failing.  A staff sergeant walks out of camp, goes AWOL, and shoots 18 people – murders them.  That’s not Army policy, and yet it is going to affect the implementation of policy, right down to how do we deal with armed Afghan citizens, whom we’re trying to put in charge of their own defense, when they are outraged and enter Green Zones in their outrage and turn fire on American service personnel.

I think that Obama has demonstrated a lot of cognizance and even some efforts to meet them halfway, but ultimately America has a foreign policy with foreign policy goals.  Sometimes those goals are going to be pushed.  37:04

CHR:   In the next chapter, you discuss a society’s morality and power and justice.  It occurred to me as I read this chapter to ask – how does a Niebuhrian approach work with an intransigent Congress?  As you’re undoubtedly aware, during the first week of the Obama administration, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that the one goal of his party was to unseat Obama.  There has been significant persistence and consistence among Republican legislators in striving toward this goal, effectively blocking much of what Obama has tried to accomplish.  How does a Niebuhrian approach work with this, or can it?

RWH:  To begin with, a Niebuhrian analysis of that works really well.  One can draw on texts like Moral Man and Immoral Society and see that entrenched power interests, especially as they are related to economic interests, and say – this is understandable, this is how power works, and this has been going on for a long time. If you suggest, then, that this isn’t how it is, you are living in some kind of Dewey-esque utopia that doesn’t exist, or you have failed to understand the facts of how power works in societies – not among individuals, but in societies.  That kind of analysis undergirds policy directions that work toward, for example, reform and regulation to lend some level of control to the vast aggregation of economic power by some individuals.  These kinds of reform and regulatory legislative initiatives are based in the belief that really powerful people who are able to concentrate wealth for themselves in this way are not to be left simply alone with their wealth in the belief that they will do things with their power in some Adam Smith-ian magical way that impacts the world around them and ultimately contributes to the common good.  That simply is seen by this approach to be untrue and would lead, therefore, toward regulation.  I see a Niebuhrian approach active there.

PJ:       Speaking of Moral Man and Immoral Society – Ward spoke before on Afghanistan, that in Niebuhr’s understanding there’s a claim that in all political relationships, the hope for deep unity and a harmony of political interests turns out to be a false hope.  All political communities are fractured.  That’s the nature of politics – that’s what politics is.  If communities were harmonious and not fractured, we wouldn’t need politics.  Niebuhr sees this.

We are doing an article and are turning our attention to this point more in depth in this piece.  On the one hand, Niebuhr points to the various sides in a partisan debate, and in a very Aristotelian way, he says that neither side possesses all of the truth, nor the entire understanding of justice.  And both sides possess part of it.  If we take that teaching from Moral Man and Immoral Society, we have to say then that it doesn’t really make sense to be a partisan – because you’re bound to be in error, in some part.  So Niebuhr’s teaching is a post-partisan, or anti-partisan, or nonpartisan teaching.   Partisanship is a mistake.

On the other hand, Niebuhr’s teaching about political communities, that they are inevitably and by definition factious and fractured, suggests that partisanship is unavoidable – that politics demand it.  So I ought to be partisan, but I ought to be partisan with an understanding that my side is not always right.  One must adopt a kind of twofold test for politics.

Obama has tried both of those things, and I don’t know how systematic he has been in experimenting with them, but he has tried the post-partisan approach – we have some critique of that approach.  He’s also tried, since September, really, the electioneering, very partisan approach.  There’s a sense in which his attempts at what political scientists call the ‘deliberative democracy’ approach to governing – that is, let’s get everybody in a room and we’ll have a grand conversation and we’ll produce some sort of compromise agreement – for all the roadblocks that it ran into and for the evident failure to persuade anybody on the other side to join him, he actually may have done two things.  On the one hand, it seems a very ethical approach to politics – and that serves the President’s moral goals for politics.  On the other hand, although it didn’t achieve the goals he set out to achieve, one of the things that it has produced is the claim that he can make now, which is a believable claim, that “I really tried that.”  And that claim turns out to be a source of power.  So trying to deliberate together turns out to be an ethical approach to politics and problem-solving – a post-partisan, non-partisan approach with which to solve problems and act politically.  And, it turns out that it serves a partisan interest, because he gets to say, “I’m the good guy who has tried to compromise and I keep running into roadblock after roadblock.”  That claim serves his image as a conciliator, and is probably a source of his power among his supporters.

RWH:  To build on that, there’s a sense in which the first two years of Obama’s presidency is this post-partisan approach that comes out of Moral Man and Immoral Society.  Then, along about the end of the third year, Obama shifts and he’s the Obama of The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.  He’s wised up to the fact that you can’t have a conversation with someone who won’t have a conversation with you, and I can use my efforts for a political purpose to say, “I really did try, but since you’re not going to play anyway, what can I do with those moments of leverage that I still have?”.  Bluntly, this is a president who still rules with a very solid – not large, but solid – majority that will not leave him in one of the houses of Congress.  So, he has moved, I think, from one place to another.

PJ:       You know, Obama did an interview with Peter Baker in 2010, just before the midterm elections.  It was published in an article called “The Education of a President”. In that article, Obama says, “When I got here, I thought we would be able to find compromise.  I thought we would deliberate and reach some sort of agreement.  And one of the things I’ve learned is that politics in Washington doesn’t work that way.”

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