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President Obama's enigmatic intellectualism

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It can seem that at the heart of Barack Obama's foreign policy is no heart at all. It consists instead of a series of challenges -- of problems that need fixing, not wrongs that need to be righted. As Winston Churchill once said of a certain pudding, Obama's approach to foreign affairs lacks theme. So, it seems, does the man himself.

For instance, it's not clear that Obama is appalled by China's appalling human rights record. He seems hardly stirred about continued repression in Russia. He treats the Israelis and their various enemies as pests of equal moral standing. The president seems to stand foursquare for nothing much.

This, of course, is the Obama enigma: Who is this guy? What are his core beliefs? The president himself is no help on this score. When it comes to his own image, he has a tin ear. He hugely misunderstood what some people were saying when they demanded that he get angry over the gulf oil catastrophe and the insult-to-injury statements of BP chief executive Tony Hayward. (Wayward Hayward, he should be called.)

What these people were seeking was not an eruption of anger, not a tantrum and not a full-scale denunciation of an oil company. What they wanted instead was a sign that this catastrophe meant something to Obama, that it was not merely another problem that had crossed his desk -- and this time just wouldn't budge. He showed not the slightest sign in the idiom that really counts in a media age -- body language -- that he gave a damn. He could see your pain, he could talk about your pain, but he gave no indication that he felt it.

One can understand. Obama's father deserted the family and afterward visited his son only once. He twice was separated from his mother, who lived in Indonesia without him. He was partially raised by his grandparents -- an elderly white couple. If the president is what the shrinks call "well-defended," who can blame him? It's ironic that Oprah Winfrey was maybe Obama's most significant early backer when the man himself is so un-Oprah. He cannot emote.

The consequences are unfortunate. Obama's opaqueness has enabled his enemies -- they are not mere critics -- to define him as they choose. He becomes a socialist, which he is not, or a Muslim, which he also is not. Even his allies are confused. The left thought he was a leftie. He's not. The right, too, thought he was a leftie. He is, above all, a pragmatist. This makes it a lot easier to say what he is not than what he is.

Fortune has not smiled on Obama's presidency. His one uncontested attribute -- a shimmering intellect -- has become suspect. A world of smart guys has turned against us. Everyone at Goldman Sachs is smart, but they seem to have the amorality mocked by the songwriter Tom Lehrer in his sendup of the celebrated American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi (" 'Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department,' says Wernher von Braun").

The oil industry is full of smart people, and so is the mortgage industry. Smart people seem to have brought us nothing but trouble. Smarts without values is dangerous -- threatening, scary, virtually un-American. This is why a succession of archconservative eccentrics have succeeded. Their values are obvious, often shockingly so. We know what they want, just not how they are ever going to get it. Experience has become a handicap and inexperience a virtue. Smart is out. Dumb is in.

Foreign policy is the realm where a president comes closest to ruling by diktat. By command decision, the war in Afghanistan has been escalated, yet it seems to lack an urgent moral component. It has an apparent end date even though girls may not yet be able to attend school and the Taliban may rule again. In some respects, I agree -- the earlier out of Afghanistan, the better -- but if we are to stay even for a while, it has to be for reasons that have to do with principle. Somewhat the same thing applies to China. It's okay to trade with China. It's okay to hate it, too.

Pragmatism is fine -- as long as it is complicated by regret. But that indispensable wince is precisely what Obama doesn't show. It is not essential that he get angry or cry. It is essential, though, that he show us who he is. As of now, we haven't a clue.

cohenr@washpost.com


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