By George F. Will
Sunday, August 3, 2008
As the presidential candidates enter the three-month sprint to November, Barack Obama must be wondering: If that did not do it, what will? The antecedent of the pronoun "that" is his Berlin speech. The antecedent of the pronoun "it" is assuage anxieties about his understanding of the need to supplement soft power (diplomacy) with hard power (military force).
He spoke in Berlin at the bullet-scarred base -- it was in the crossfire 63 years ago as Russian troops neared Hitler's bunker about a mile away -- of an 1873 monument to German militarism. To be precise, the monument celebrates the Franco-Prussian War and lesser triumphs of the militarism that was to help ruin the next century.
Anyway, at that monument Obama exhorted Germans -- does the candidate of "change" appreciate how much beneficent change made this exhortation necessary? -- to be more willing to wage war, in Afghanistan. He was right to do so.
But polls taken since his trip abroad do not indicate that Obama succeeded in altering the oddest aspect of this presidential campaign: Measured against his party's surging strength in every region and at every level, he is dramatically underperforming. Surely this fact is related to anxieties about his thin résumé regarding national security matters, the thinnest of any major party nominee since Wendell Willkie in 1940. But the fact also might be related to fatigue from too much of Obama's eloquence, which is beginning to sound formulaic and perfunctory.
Even an eloquent politician can become, as Benjamin Disraeli described William Gladstone, "a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity." John Kennedy said in Berlin, "Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free." That half-baked and badly written thought was either trivial because it was tautological (when one man is enslaved, not every man is free) or it was absurd (when one man is not free, no man is free). That absurdity is dangerous because it makes a grandiose mission seem imperative, as in President George W. Bush's second inaugural address: "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands."
Does Obama have the sort of adviser a candidate most needs -- someone sufficiently unenthralled to tell him when he has worked one pedal on the organ too much? If so, Obama should be told: Enough, already, with the we-are-who-we-have-been-waiting-for rhetorical cotton candy that elevates narcissism to a political philosophy.
And no more locutions such as "citizen of the world" and "global citizenship." If they meant anything in Berlin, they meant that Obama wanted Berliners to know that he is proudly cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is not, however, a political asset for American presidential candidates. Least of all is it an asset for Obama, one of whose urgent needs is to seem comfortable with America's vibrant and very un-European patriotism, which is grounded in a sense of virtuous exceptionalism.
Otherwise, "citizen of the world" and "global citizenship" are, strictly speaking, nonsense. Citizenship is defined by legal and loyalty attachments to a particular political entity with a distinctive regime and culture. Neither the world nor the globe is such an entity.
In Berlin, Obama neared self-parody with a rhetoric of Leave No Metaphor Behind. "Walls"? Down with them. "Bridges"? Build new ones between this and that. "A new dawn"? The Middle East deserves one. And Berlin was the wrong place to vow to "remake the world once again." Modern Berlin rose from rubble that was the result of the last attempt at remaking "the world."
Of course, from Obama, such tropes, although silly, are not menacing, any more than they were from Ronald Reagan, who was incorrigibly fond of perhaps the least conservative, and therefore the most absurd, proposition ever penned by a political philosopher, Thomas Paine's "we have it in our power to begin the world over again." No. We. Don't.
The world is a fact, and facts are indeed stubborn things. After eight years, if such there are, of an Obama presidency, if such there is, the world will look much as it does today -- if we are lucky.
Swift and sweeping changes are almost always calamitous consequences of calamities -- often of wars, sometimes of people determined to "remake the world." Wise voters -- polls might be telling us that there are more of them than Obama imagines -- hanker for candidates whose principal promise is that they will do their best to muddle through without breaking too much crockery.