Friday, September 24, 2010

Obama’s Viscera

Michael Gerson, drawing on revelations from the new Bob Woodward book, offers an unusually fluent, but otherwise pretty standard, conservative account of Obama’s deficiencies as a Commander in Chief. Gerson thinks that a better president wouldn’t have escalated the Afghanistan war unless he was viscerally committed to military success and willing to pay the political price of securing it. Moreover, he’d have done a better job of conveying the depth of that commitment to his own staff, the military leadership, the soldiers he’d put in harm’s way and adversaries and allies around the world. Gerson doesn’t deny that Obama’s an impressive guy, but he thinks that Woodward reveals that Obama lacks the intellectual and moral seriousness of a George Bush or a Harry Truman.

I don’t have anything noteworthy to say in opposition to all that. But I’m intrigued by an observation Gerson makes by way of introduction (my emphasis):
“What is most disturbing about the coverage of Bob Woodward's "Obama's Wars" is not the juicy bits of conflict and infighting; it is the fact that the White House seems pleased with the image of President Obama that emerges. ‘I think the president comes across pretty well in the book,’ says one official, ‘even if it looks crazy around him.’
Gerson isn’t misrepresenting the White House reaction to Woodward’s revelations. Apparently it cooperated with Woodward every step of the way from the book’s conception to its publication, even to the point of commanding reluctant Pentagon officials to submit to interviews. Here’s how the Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut characterizes the reaction of senior White House staffers to the finished product (my emphasis):
“With juicy nuggets from the new Bob Woodward book on President Obama starting to emerge, the official White House reaction so far is: It's just fine. Many of Obama's senior advisers have already obtained and read the book, ‘Obama's Wars,’ and are satisfied with the image it conveys of the president, a senior administration official said Wednesday.

“‘The President comes across in the [Afghanistan] review and throughout the decisionmaking process as a Commander in Chief who is analytical, strategic, and decisive, with a broad view of history, national security, and his role,’ the official said in an e-mail. ”
This is another example of the conceptual insularity of ideologies that I considered in another connection yesterday.

Obama’s allies think Woodward’s account provides ample evidence that Obama understands something important that never dawned on George Bush: viz., that questions of war and peace are too important to be answered by gut instinct or moralistic common sense. The endless White House seminars, at which Obama always asked the most probing questions, ventilated all the competing views about how to wage the Afghanistan war. That reveals a president determined to follow protocols of rational decision-making designed to filter out the decision-makers’ visceral impulses and cognitive biases. Obama was leading a war on prejudice from the Oval Office in keeping with liberals’ ideal of sober rationality and moral seriousness.

“Presidential rationality and moral seriousness” means something different to conservatives. It’s importantly a matter of having prejudices (in Burke’s sense), well-cultivated moral reflexes that encourage a president to ask the right questions and heed the civilizational wisdom transmitted by his gut. So when a Bush or a Truman seems to be governing by brute impulse, he’s really plugging into a source of rationality that exceeds Obama’s grasp.

That’s one more sign of the extent to which conservatives and liberals inhabit different conceptual universes with very few passageways between them. It’s a wonder that we ever agree on anything at all.


Anonymous said...

questions of war and piece... ???

Ron Replogle said...

Thanks, I've corrected the typo.