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Best of All Possible Presidencies

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Thursday, January 15, 2009; Page A19

What a sunny view Condoleezza Rice took in a valedictory conversation with Post journalists this week. She could have been Dr. Pangloss's daughter in her steadfastly upbeat account of the world. Asked about policies she regretted, she offered the cheerful retort: "Aren't you going to say, 'Aren't you thrilled that . . . ?' "

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The same warm tone of vindication suffused President Bush's final news conference on Monday. He was his affable old self as he dismissed the negative judgments of what he called "short-term history" and looked instead to the big, big picture beyond. "Every day has been joyous," Bush said at one point. And, gee whiz, he really seemed to mean it.

We have been living for eight years with the paradox of "conservative optimists" running our nation's foreign policy. That's what sticks in the mind in this last week of the Bush presidency. This administration has fused a dark, conservative view about the need for military power with a rosy conception about the perfectibility of humankind. The result has been a kind of armed do-gooderism -- and a foreign policy that has frightened and angered the rest of the world.

With the inauguration of Barack Obama, the moment has arrived for what I want to call the "progressive pessimists." This new worldview would marry the liberal desire to make life better with a realist's appreciation of the limits of political and military power. This is a gloomier progressivism than President John F. Kennedy's 1961 admonition to "pay any price, bear any burden." We've tried that.

We'll have to wait for Obama's own inaugural address to see just where his compass is pointed. But there was a notable absence of heaven-on-earth rhetoric in his speech last Thursday at George Mason University. Obama painted a bleak picture of double-digit unemployment and a lost generation of workers.

I also saw the pessimist's wariness of potential disaster in Obama's discussion of intelligence issues with George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week." Asked about Vice President Cheney's warning to be careful about fulfilling campaign promises to ban harsh interrogation techniques and other tactics in combating terrorism, Obama said, surprisingly, "I think that was pretty good advice."

To underscore the message, Obama indicated that he would oppose retrospective investigations of wrongdoing by the CIA and other agencies, arguing: "When it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past." This is the kind of realism that will disappoint liberal score-settlers, but it makes clear that Obama has a grim appreciation of the dangers America still faces from al-Qaeda and its allies.

The patron saint of progressive pessimism is George Orwell, who was at once a passionate social democrat and a political reactionary. He was as suspicious of the do-gooder impulse of the left as he was of the imperialist jingoism of the right. In his famous novels "1984" and "Animal Farm," Orwell conveyed his deep skepticism about the utopian impulse and the way it could be manipulated by authoritarian leaders. He was torn all his life between a progressive's passion for the downtrodden and a pessimist's recognition of how this humanitarian impulse could be misused.

Bush's great mistakes have been those of an optimist who believed in social engineering on a global scale. He rolled into Iraq convinced that this traditional tribal society could be remade in a Western image of progress. When he talked of democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries, there was a sense of inevitability -- that democracy and freedom are immutable historical forces rather than the product of frail and imperfect human decisions.

What was missing from Bush, oddly, was the conservative's abiding skepticism of big ideas and grand designs. He talked often of President Lincoln but seemed not to recognize how deeply pessimistic Lincoln was, and how desperately he hoped to escape a civil war. It is impossible to imagine Lincoln saying "bring it on," or even thinking it.

If the sunny, ever-hopeful Bush needed to read anything from American history, it was the passage in the Federalist Papers where James Madison cautioned against optimism: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

The conservative optimist leaves the stage with the same determined, instinctive sense of purpose he had when he arrived. What a challenge he will be for the historian bold enough to tell this poignant and painful story.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.


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