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Obama and the Agony of Prudence

Posted on Jun 26, 2011

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

Among Dana Carvey’s most brilliant sketches on “Saturday Night Live” were his dead-perfect impersonations of President George H.W. Bush, which made a permanent contribution to America’s political language. “Not gonna do it!” Carvey-as-Bush would say. “Wouldn’t be prudent!”

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What Carvey grasped is that Bush 41 was a conservative not so much by ideology as by temperament. Prudence really was one of his cardinal virtues.

Prudence went on vacation during the administration of the second President Bush, but it’s back as the hallmark of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy. And it was the underlying theme of Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last week.

You would think this would be popular. But it turns out that Obama finds himself almost alone in his effort to define a broad new middle ground in international affairs. It’s not that the center isn’t holding. It’s that most politicians don’t seem to want to go near it.

Here is the most important passage of Obama’s address: “We must chart a more centered course. Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events. But we must be as pragmatic as we are passionate; as strategic as we are resolute. When threatened, we must respond with force—but when that force can be targeted, we need not deploy large armies overseas.”


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Obama is trying to get out of Afghanistan, carefully. He’s trying to put “a difficult decade” of war behind us. If he is re-elected, he would chart a new course freed from the two enormous military engagements that George W. Bush undertook.

The problem for Obama is that what he sees as a grand revival of bipartisanship in foreign policy is being dismissed widely as an improvised set of split-the-difference tactical choices.

His withdrawal schedule from Afghanistan is too slow for the doves, too quick for the hawks. In the case of Libya, he’s too aggressive for those weary of American military intervention and not bold enough for those who think the United States has a moral obligation to bring down the Gadhafi dictatorship. The fact that almost all our troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year goes unheralded.

Politically, says Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a longtime advocate of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Obama risks being in the position of Democrats in 1968. Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey were held accountable for the Vietnam War while Republican Richard Nixon could seek votes by promising to end it without offering any details as to how.

With so many Republicans moving off to the dovish side, Obama could find himself caught in a weird pincer movement between these newly anti-war Republicans and those who will say that he squandered a chance to “win” in Afghanistan by not giving the generals time to use our surge troops during one more “fighting season.” 

The administration is stuck making a case whose only virtue is that it might turn out to be right. The United States has done what it could to improve the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. We have to decide whether this commitment will end, or whether there will be an endless series of “fighting seasons” in which we need to give it one more try. A political settlement is the only way out, and it’s not obvious that one more round of fighting would substantially improve the outcome of those discussions.

It’s easy, for me at least, to identify with those who want to move out faster. But Obama is not being excessively prudent to worry that a quicker withdrawal could disrupt our alliances, undo our achievements on the ground, and weaken our efforts to leave a relatively stable situation behind when we do get out. Yes, wars are harder to end than to start, especially when no clean and clear victory is possible. Other people’s civil wars are like that.

There are times when Obama’s obsession with finding some sensible middle ground is deeply frustrating. In the budget talks, he has made a variety of concessions to Republicans only to have them walk out and insist on defining bipartisanship as getting whatever it is they want. Obama’s conflict avoidance has led him to default on making a case for his own domestic policies.

But his effort to find a more stable middle ground in foreign policy deserves more support than it’s getting. There are worse things than to deserve comparisons with George H.W. Bush, Dana Carvey’s brilliant barbs notwithstanding.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By war begets climate change, July 2, 2011 at 8:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

EJ Dionne Jr, get back to school and restudy war why dontcha? This piece of jaw dropping, eye-rolling tripe cum let’s all support the president is totally wrongheaded.

Obama has increased war around the world—not found some middle ground.

Did you really mean “Other people’s civil wars are like that”—harder to end than to start?  Other people’s?!?

The US creates the cauldron of civil war by effecting climate change, distributing horrendous food policies and guns, bolstering politicians who do not represent the people, exporting income disparity and tempting everyone to chase the dollar dollar bill.  “Other people’s civil wars,” indeed. 

They are Our wars of destabilization and plunder. Everywhere we militarize, civil war is the predictable, obvious outcome.  They are Ours to own—Ours to prevent—Ours to draw down. Ours to quit starting in the first place.

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By clearwaters, June 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

Obama: “We must chart a more centered course.”
  We must not defend peace or oppose war.
We must not oppose dictatorial friends or defend demands for human rights.
We must not defend habeas corpus or oppose imprisonment without trial.
We must not oppose war profits or defend civil rights at home.
We must not defend global ecology or oppose corporate health.
  We must be prudent going forward for the sake of this administration and those
administrations to follow. Bipartisanship must prevail.

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By question, June 28, 2011 at 11:27 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama has no authentic “middle ground”; his credibility is shot with his base - those he chooses to lambaste & whine about.  If he had or would, fire up some passion & anger here at home & DO something about the chasm between the top 1% & the entire rest of our country, he’d have all the support he could crave.  But when he repeatedly proves himself to be craven on the financial issues, he gets no respect for his foreign policy stance.  He’s earned it.  And please don’t parrot the old canard about it being the fault of the GOP.  We know that - Obama promised change.  He’s delivered no change nor even any passion that has a real affect on the formerly working class.  He isn’t a leader, he’s a negotiating Senator.  He doesn’t chart a solid, steady sane course, he reacts to grumblings among the crew & runs in to babysit Congress every time one of the critters has a public hissy fit.

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By Night-Gaunt, June 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm Link to this comment

So far the “middle ground” is that the Democrats cede the lead in bargaining and give away the house, barn and have the horse left. Then they bargain. Then hope the Republicans are sated , they aren’t. If I were looking at this as a psychologist or behaviorist I would say the the Democrats are the facilitators to the Republicans. Time and again. Almost like they are bred and trained to be the servitors of the crypto-fascist cause. (The few Progressives in the Democratic party just can’t fight well enough with not enough people to override the enablers in their own party.)

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By Bird48, June 27, 2011 at 12:24 pm Link to this comment

Some things do not lend themselves to a “middle ground”. The wars in Afghanistan and Libya are two of those things. Either this country is going to destroy the world with military might or we are going to stop policing every other place on the globe and tend to our own problems. To kind of be at war forever is a lot like being a little bit pregnant—either you are or aren’t and it is past time for our corporate-shill president to declare which way to go and face the consequences of his actions.

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By mackTN, June 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm Link to this comment

Wait until Obama for America calls you to read from its script about doing away
with partisan politics, about Obama fulfilling his promise to end the war in Iraq
and to provide affordable (?) health care for all.  These people think voters are
stupid.  Is dumping partisan politics commensurate with caving in to the
Republicans?  Is nearly ending the war in Iraq promising when all the troops
were immediately reassigned to Afghanistan and we are in more wars than Bush
dared? Is it true that we have to get arrested to get affordable health care? 
Mine isn’t affordable—the premiums have gone through the roof, and I might
have to take a pass and cross my fingers till Medicare—if there is any left by

I notice Obama for America said nothing about hope and change or Yes, I can
(although Michelle went to South Africa for that campaign…apparently).  No, I
told OFA, I’m not giving $500 (this time around) and I’m not hosting any house
parties.  Why does he need my money when he can ask his Wall St buddies for
it?  Will it get me an invite to his domestic policy get-togethers?  No.  It didn’t
even get me an invite to the Cornel West.

I’m sorry, but I don’t give a damn about Libya.  Why don’t we let France and
Britain (since BP is the oil company to benefit?) handle this one?  The rent is too
damn high.

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By DaEggman, June 27, 2011 at 6:54 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When Libya became our “friend” after 9/11, we showered them with all kinds of military “aid” and paved the way for this kind of event. Ghaddafi is a loon, there is no question, after the rantings of drug induced rebellions etc, there can be no question of his sanity or his grip on any sort of reality. But we are to blame for his power. For years after the Lockerbie disaster which was blamed on Libya, they received no military aid. Had the citizens risen up then, they would have won already. But now, they stand no chance thanks to our ridiculous foreign policy designed and implemented by the military-industrial-congressional complex. It should be a UN intervention, not NATO, and we should help with funding and troops, but this should be dispersed amongst the nations, not piled on our plate. We need to start to invest more in the UN (I know, it is rife with corruption, but it’s the only world government we have.) Investment in the rule of law is always preferred to imperialist shunning of law because of fear of retalliation because of its ability to support democracy, which as we’ve heard so many times before, is the reason we’re there in the first place. This time, let’s make it the truth.

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By MollyJ, June 27, 2011 at 6:26 am Link to this comment

I used to enjoy reading Dionne but now he just says a carefully parsed version of what the popular opinion wants to hear.
Mr. Dionne read Andrew Bacevich’s recent works.  Obama will not engage in anything bold or visionary as far as foreign policy is concerned because there is so much money to be made in the continuous engagement in war.  War begets war; it does not beget peace.  It never has and never will.  And even more importantly it begets profits for huge slices of influential Americans.
Never mind that it creates highly limited career choices for countless Americans.  It is time for Americans to come to grips with how our fascination with war limits what we do, teach, export, believe and what we think it is a good idea for us to spend our national treasury on. 
Mr. Obama has no new ideas, no bold initiatives.  He is merely a maintainer of the status quo.  And the status quo merely wants to maintain a profit that will consume the country and the people.

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By Mike Flugennock, June 27, 2011 at 6:08 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Middle Ground? I’m sorry, Dionne, but did you just say “MIDDLE GROUND”? D’ahh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Excuse me, but military actions without the permission of Congress as per the Constitution, bombing civilians, extrajudicial assassination and torturing prisoners are NOT in the “Middle Ground”.

“The tide of war is receding”? Jeezus, what a load of crap:

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By monkeymind, June 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm Link to this comment

““Like generations before, we must embrace America’s singular role in the course of human events.”“

such hubris.

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