Obama, Idealist or Realist?

Max Fleischer's Gulliver

Max Fleischer’s Gulliver

2010 in Review

There was an interesting dust-up last week amongst conservative intellectuals following the release of some more Richard Nixon tapes. Henry Kissinger can be heard making the following cold-blooded remark about Soviet Jews in 1973: “Let’s face it: The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. It may be a humanitarian concern.”

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson took him to task. Kissinger responded by offering context for the quotes and criticizing Gerson for his self-righteous “jeering.”

The debate, one well worth having, is whether American foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of idealism (Gerson’s argument) or self-interested realism (which Kissinger was famous for). Jonathan Swift has an invaluable perspective on this.

In fact I invoked Swift early in the Obama administration on exactly this issue. Was Obama going to be an idealist or a pragmatist, I wondered, noting that Swift saw the downside to each. Now that Obama is nearing the end of his first two years in office, it is an appropriate time to assess his foreign policy performance. Here is an extended excerpt from that post, which appeared on June 3, 2009. (The entire post can be read here) In your opinion how well (with the help of Swift) do you think I called it and where does Obama come out?

The Gulliver of Book I can be seen as a good intentioned but naïve United States, an “innocent abroad” (to use Mark Twain’s memorable phrase). So we think we can bring democracy to the rest of the world? Were George Bush and the neocons high-minded and idealistic or dangerously foolish? (For the moment I do not search for other motives for the invasion of Iraq.) Is Barack Obama a gullible fool (as former Vice President Dick Cheney is currently claiming) for thinking that American values in themselves, without torture and other strong measures, are the best counters to terrorism? For that matter, does America, like Gulliver, think that it can stride above the factional infighting of Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing people in their best light.  And will it then run away when tribalism and other apparently intractable problems threaten to drag it down? In Book I, Swift lays out the promise and pitfalls of naïve idealism.

In Book II he explores the patriot or true believer. His depiction rings true whether this belief is in a country (America, love it or leave it) or a cause. Gulliver is convinced that his country is superior to all others, in spite of towering evidence to the contrary. He refuses to see any flaws and sings only the virtues. And then, when the Brobdingnag King pokes holes in his belief, he begins singing the praises of gunpowder. Which is another way of saying, “I’ve got the most morally superior country and, to prove that we are superior, we also have the strongest military.” This believer believes, in part, because his cause makes him feel big. If he attaches himself to a great cause, then he doesn’t have to think of himself as a tiny man simply trying to survive in a giant world.

And what about the cynicism of Book IV? In some ways, Gulliver’s Travels captures a back and forth that has defined the American experiment from the beginning. Since the first English colonists, America has swung back and forth between idealism and pessimism, between John Winthrop’s vision of a city on a hill and Jonathan Edwards’ sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our greatest works of literature capture the tension between beautiful dreaming and shattered disillusion, works such as The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, All the King’s Men, Beloved, and so on.

And last but not least, Swift explores pragmatism, which is a quintessential American value and which President Obama is invoking to counter what he sees as the ideological excesses of the previous administration. And pragmatism is a good thing—if it is guided by vision. But pragmatism, like idealism, can veer wildly off course, as it does in “A Modest Proposal.” There Swift provides the ultimate critique of pure “the ends justify the means” pragmatism. In this famous essay one follows as a social engineer logically, reasonably, and with the best of intentions proposes a horrific (but pragmatic) solution to an intolerable problem.

Each of these approaches to life starts well and then goes horribly wrong. The innocent idealist becomes a gullible fool in Book I, the patriot or high-minded believer becomes a fanatic in Book II, the realist becomes a hardened cynic in Book IV, and the pragmatist becomes a monster in “A Modest Proposal.” What goes wrong? For Swift, the answer is always human pride.

Each idealist has his or her own kind of pride. The innocent idealist thinks he can stay removed from reality, keeping his hands clean. The true believer wants to believe herself big. The realist thinks he has taken an accurate pulse of reality, but rather than this being a rational assessment, it is driven by disgust. It is a blow to his pride to think of himself as a yahoo. The pragmatist, meanwhile, thinks that her reason puts her above all human concerns.

Swift would say that we can’t avoid pride. It’s part of who we are. But what we can do is work to counter its effects, and one of our best tools at doing so is humor. When we find ourselves becoming too full of ourselves, that’s when we need to laugh at ourselves. Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal” are both comic works that will help us regain a human perspective.

By these Swiftian standards, what are Barack Obama’s chances for maintaining perspective? Can he hold on to his innocent ideals without becoming a gullible fool? Can he be pragmatic without losing vision? Can he continue to believe in what he’s fighting for without his ego becoming excessively involved? Can he remain realistic without yielding to cynicism?

His innocent idealism, which he got from his mother, looks as though it was successfully tested and hardened by his Chicago community organizing. While there are causes that he passionately believes in (especially health care and good education for all), he doesn’t appear fanatical but seems willing to listen to people who don’t agree with him. He somehow, so far, seems able to be both realistic and optimistic. And his pragmatism is not without vision. So the early signs are promising, at least in the eyes of this ardent supporter.

Will he be seduced by power? Will ego enter into his decision-making? Yes and yes. He is human, after all. He also appears to have a streak of arrogance, an impatience with fools, and a confidence that he can handle any problem. These traits may be necessary in a leader, but they will also get him into trouble. What I hope for him, and for us all, is that when he does get caught up in his ego, he will reflect, laugh at himself, and return to humility. And while we’re at it, I hope for the same qualities for ourselves, the citizens of this country, without whom Obama cannot be successful.

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